Oil prices end slightly higher as market eyes U.N.-Iran standoff

Oil prices finished slightly above $70 a barrel Thursday as traders eyed the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West and after BP PLC officials said the company's Prudhoe Bay output could be restored earlier than expected.

The push for U.N. sanctions against Iran seemed likely to intensify Thursday after the country's president refused to compromise as a deadline to stop enriching uranium arrived.

U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the U.N. Security Council must be ready to impose sanctions. He added, however, that it will wait to take action until the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, meets with Iran's top negotiator, Ali Larijani, sometime next week.

Another concern for the market was Nigeria, where two oil workers' unions called for a three-day strike in Africa's biggest crude oil producer.

However, supply concerns were tempered after BP hinted that production at Prudhoe Bay could soon rise.

BP officials believe a portion of the pipeline idled by corrosion concerns may be useable at least temporarily and that other sections can be bypassed. The flow of oil from Prudhoe Bay has been cut in half to 200,000 barrels a day as BP prepares to replace 16 miles of pipeline after discovering extensive internal corrosion that resulted in spills in March and early August.

On Wednesday, Department of Energy data showed U.S. crude-oil inventories rose 2.4 million barrels last week to 332.8 million barrels, or 6.2 percent above year-ago levels. Gasoline inventories rose 400,000 barrels to 206.2 million barrels, or 4.6 percent above last year's levels.

Light sweet crude for October delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange rose 23 cents to settle at $70.26 a barrel. Gasoline futures fell by more than 5 cents to settle at $1.7504 a gallon and heating oil futures rose by less than a penny to $1.9542 a gallon.

Nymex natural gas futures fell by 24.2 cents to settle at $6.048 per 1,000 cubic feet after the government reported that supplies grew last week.

In London, Brent crude on the ICE Futures exchange rose 7 cents to settle at $70.25 a barrel, reports AP.