March 1, 2012 / 7:57 PM / 5 years ago

UPDATE 10-Oil highest since 2008 on Saudi pipeline report

* Iranian media reports Saudi oil pipeline fire

* Saudi officials say report untrue-CNBC

* Western sanctions already cutting Iran oil exports-EIA

* Coming up: U.S. consumer confidence poll, Friday (Updates with post-settlement prices, adds details)

By Gene Ramos

NEW YORK, March 1 (Reuters) - Oil surged nearly 5 percent in heavy trading on Thursday, and to its highest since the record run in 2008, as a late report out of Iran of a pipeline fire in top exporter Saudi Arabia triggered a rush of buying.

Iranian media reported an explosion on an unknown oil pipeline in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, although it was not possible to verify the report immediately. .

A Saudi oil official denied the report, according to a Dow Jones news story that was picked up by CNBC television.

Markets have been on edge this year due to threats of supply disruptions caused by West's standoff with Iran over the latter's nuclear program and to actual production losses from South Sudan, Yemen, Syrian and the North Sea.

"The sharp move up on the pipeline story points to the market nervousness on anything related to supply problems," said Gene McGillian, analyst for Tradition Energy in Stamford, Connecticut.

Brent crude prices topped $128 a barrel in late post-settlement trade, levels not reached since July 2008 when the growing economic crisis sent oil spiraling to record peaks of more than $147 a barrel.

Prices were already up before the pipeline report, lifted by news Israel would test-fire a ballistic interceptor missile, escalating tensions over the crisis that has included tough sanctions against Iran.

International benchmark Brent crude climbed to $128.40 a barrel in post-settlment trade, the highest since July 2008, after settling at $126.20, up $3.54 on the day. As trading wound up for the day, the contract last traded at $126.00, up $3.34.

U.S. April crude settled at $108.84 a barrel, up $1.77, before rising to $110.55 in late activity, the highest since May 2011. In post-settlement electronic trading, the contract last traded at $108.60, up $1.53.

At the close, Brent's premium against U.S. crude widened to $17.36, from $16.27 on Wednesday. The volatile transatlantic spread traded between $15.56 to $18.12. CL-LCO1=R

Total Brent trading volume was 49 percent above its 30-day average, hitting nearly 800,000 contracts, according to Reuters data. U.S. crude volume was up nearly 24 percent above its 30-day average, at more than 822,000 contracts.

"This is another Brent-driven escalation trade," said Richard Ilczysyn, chief market strategist and founder of iitrader.com LLC in Chicago.

Iran, the world's fifth largest oil producer, has been struggling to sell its crude in the face of tightening U.S. sanctions and an European Union embargo that kicks in on July 1. This has threatened to tighten global crude supplies.

However, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that global oil producers have enough spare production capacity to make up for a drop in Iranian exports.

U.S. President Obama said his administration will lay out as "many steps as we can" in coming weeks to unclog bottlenecks in the world's top consumer that are helping to push up the price of gasoline and other fuels, a key issue for consumers as the economy struggles to recovery in an election year. [ID;nL2E8E1C5I]

Data showing U.S. jobless claims fell last week -- the latest sign that the labor market recovery was gaining momentum -- also helped support prices, outweighing data showing that U.S. factory growth cooled last month.

Further boosting economic optimism, data showed better-than-expected U.S. retail sales and a surprising sales gain by General Motors Co and other U.S. automakers despite high gasoline prices.

In early trading news that China's factory activity grew more than expected in February initially pushed up oil prices.

Additional reporting by Robert Gibbons, Janet McGurty and Matthew Robinson in New York, Alex Lawler in London, Manash Goswami in Singapore; Editing by David Gregorio, Marguerita Choy, Dale Hudson and Bob Burgdorfer

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