Crude Ends Above $77

Updated from 12:09 p.m. EDT

Oil rose again Friday, touching a record high for a third straight day, as Iran warned Israel against escalating a military offensive that has claimed more than 50 lives. The gains were pared when OPEC reassured the market it remained committed to order and stability.

August crude soared 33 cents to $77.03, bringing its four-day rise to 4.6%. Earlier, crude touched $78.40 a barrel in electronic Nymex trading. That's the highest price in the 23-year history of the Nymex contract when the impact of inflation is excluded.

"The markets are still behaving like they have seized up, and the mood remains very nervous, with substantial intraday price dips almost nonexistent," said Edward Meir, an analyst with Man Financial.

Oil has steadily risen since Tuesday amid a steady stream of headlines out of Israel and concern the conflict could draw in Iran and Syria, Hezbollah's backers, and impact crude supplies. The concern is that the attacks could widen into a larger Middle East conflict and cut crude exports from Iran, the world's fourth-largest producer.

"Many analysts believe that the Hezbollah attacks on Israel were explicitly or implicitly sanctioned if not actually instigated by Iran," said James Williams, an analyst at WTRG Energy Economics in London, Ark. "While the volume of oil involved in the direct participants is minuscule the conflict always has the possibility of encouraging Hezbollah sympathizers to action in other arenas."

The U.N. held an emergency meeting Friday, with Lebanon's ambassador calling for an immediate cease fire. U.S. President Bush refused to ask Israel to end its air strikes because he thinks Israel has a right to defend itself, Tony Snow, the White House spokesman said. But other world leaders, including Jacques Chirac of France and Vladimir Putin of Russia, condemned the attacks.

Israel has said it will end its attacks when two kidnapped soldiers are released, rocket attacks on northern Israel ends and the Lebanese government disarm Hezbollah.

On Friday, Israeli warplanes bombed Lebanon's airport for a second straight day as efforts to dislodge Hezbollah militants continued to be pressed. Two retaliatory missiles reached settlements in northern Israel, the AP said.

Another target has been the main highway from Lebanon to Syria, which has been bombed multiple times by Israeli fighter jets over the last two days. In all, more than 70 people have reportedly been killed in the fighting, which intensified Wednesday after three Israeli soldiers were killed and two kidnapped by Hezbollah guerillas.

A report from Agence France-Presse quoted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadeinjad warning Israel to keep out of Syria. "This will be the same as an aggression against the entire Islamic world,'' Ahmadinejad said, according to the wire service.

Bloomberg, meanwhile, quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki calling for foreign intervention. "The international community and the U.N. must intervene to stop this crime,'' Mottaki said. "The situation in Palestine and Lebanon is worrying and dangerous'' and "has created great concern."

Iran has been a fixture in the oil calculus all year because of tensions about its young nuclear research program. The standoff was referred to the U.N. Security Council on Thursday after Iran missed a deadline to respond to an incentives package this week. The West had hoped to have an answer ahead of the Group of Eight meeting in Russia this Saturday.

If Iran halts uranium enrichment, the West has offered to help Iran join the World Trade Organization and build light-water nuclear reactors to generate electricity, and lift sanctions on the export of aircraft and telecommunications equipment.

Oil prices have soared 26% this year on the impasse with Iran and ongoing rebel attacks on Nigerian oil installations. Militants have blown up pipelines and platforms and kidnapped oil workers in a bid to pressure the government into giving it a share of the country's oil revenue. But on Friday, Chevron ( CVX) said 40 kidnapped workers were released.

Africa's largest crude producer has lost as much as a quarter of its oil production, or 631,000 barrels per day, due to the attacks, with Royal Dutch Shell ( RDS.A) feeling the brunt of them. This week, militants attacked a pipeline operated by Eni ( E), a move that could cost the Italian company as much as 120,000 barrels per day.

Oil has been skyrocketing on geopolitical tensions because there is increasingly less crude to meet soaring demand. The world consumes 85 million barrels of crude per day, and there is only 2 million barrels extra. With razor-thin margins and booming demand, energy traders don't expect oil prices to come down anytime soon. On Nymex, crude for delivery next June closed at $80.04 a barrel Friday.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries tried to reassure the markets Friday, issuing a statement laying blame on the recent run-up in crude prices to geopolitical problems. Oil prices have spiked "in spite of the fact that the market remains well-supplied with crude," according to the statement.

The spike in crude futures has boosted the rest of the energy complex, with gasoline climbing 2 cents to settle at $2.32, the highest level since Hurricane Katrina shut down much of the Gulf Coast's petroleum industry. Heating oil dipped 1 cent to $2.07 a gallon and natural gas rose 21 cents to $6.34 per million British thermal units.

Equities were regaining ground, with the Amex Oil Index up 1%. Leaders included Chevron, Hess ( HES), Sunoco ( SUN) and ExxonMobil ( XOM).

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