Oil prices jumped about 2 percent Tuesday as tensions rose in Iran and strong retail sales put a rosier glow on the U.S. economy.
Benchmark crude rose $2.37, or 2.4 percent, to end the day at $100.14 per barrel in New York. Brent crude, which is used to price foreign oil imported by some U.S. refineries, rose $2 to finish at $109.08 a barrel in London.
Analysts said traders reacted to more saber-rattling by Iran, as the country continues to deny accusations that it is developing nuclear weapons. Iran's navy now plans to run drills, practicing a closing of the narrow Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
About a third of the world's oil tanker traffic passes through that strategic waterway, and even a brief closure could crimp oil supplies around the world. Longer, more expensive routes would have to be used to transport crude from the region.
"There's just a lot of chatter out there," said Addison Armstrong, director of market research at Tradition Energy. "There are a lot of possibilities of what might happen," but traders are choosing to err on the side of buying rather than selling.
Rumors swirled during the day about what the Federal Reserve might do to further stimulate the economy. The Fed, which met Tuesday, left open the possibility for new steps to stimulate the economy next year if needed, but said the nation's economy appeared to be slowly recovering..
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will meet Wednesday in Europe to decide how much oil to bring to the market. OPEC trimmed its forecast for global oil demand in 2012. But at 88.9 million barrels per day, OPEC's outlook still puts world demand at a record high next year.
On Tuesday the government said that U.S. consumers' retail spending rose in November for the sixth straight month. The U.S. economy is driven by consumer spending, and more spending points to stronger demand for oil. A separate government report said that U.S. businesses built up their stockpiles in October. That's another encouraging sign for the economy, suggesting growing business confidence.
Still, a private survey showed that Americans continue to cut back on gasoline purchases. MasterCard SpendingPulse reported Tuesday that the four-week average for U.S. retail gasoline demand fell by 4.2 percent year-over-year. That's the 38th week in a row that gasoline demand fell.
Gas pump prices slipped by less than a penny Tuesday to a national average of $3.269 per gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service. A gallon of regular is about 15 cents cheaper than a month ago and 29 cents cheaper than a year ago.
In other energy trading, heating oil rose 3.27 cents to finish at $2.9288 per gallon, and gasoline futures increased by 6.18 cents to end at $2.6254 per gallon. Natural gas rose 2.5 cents to finish the day at $3.279 per 1,000 cubic feet.
Chris Kahn can be reached at http://twitter.com/ChrisKahnAP