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Oil near $79 a barrel; pump prices ticking up

NEW YORK - NEW YORK (AP) — Energy prices rose slightly Tuesday with a majority of futures traders taking the holiday week off, though a stronger dollar helped keep a barrel of oil below $79.

Benchmark crude for February delivery added a dime to settle at $78.87 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, still the highest close since mid-November. In London, Brent crude for February delivery increased 32 cents to settle at $77.64 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

A rise in the dollar versus other currencies tends to push oil prices lower. Crude is priced in dollars, and investors holding foreign money can't buy as much when the dollar rises.

Still, oil has pressed higher for five straight days. Crude is getting close to the high for the year of $82 a barrel, and that's tugging other fuels higher as well.

Retail gas prices increased for the fourth straight day, the first time it's done that since October. The national average climbed a half penny overnight to a new national average of $2.608, according to auto club AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service.

A gallon of regular unleaded is 2.1 cents cheaper than a month ago, but nearly $1 more expensive than a year ago.

A report released Tuesday by MasterCard SpendingPulse said Americans bought more gas last week than they did a year ago, marking the fifth straight week that demand strengthened.

When the new year begins, analyst and trader Stephen Schork said he'll be closely watching for signs of gas demand and how oil refiners will react. Petroleum consumption has dropped overall this year in the U.S., and if refiners can't pass along higher crude prices to consumers, then Schork said he expects a downward correction in oil prices.

"Refiners have a difficult row to hoe right now," he said. "These guys can't make money. They can't pass on the exaggerated cost of crude to consumers. Some are trying to sell their refineries, and they're not getting any takers."

In other Nymex trading in January contracts, heating oil rose 2.93 cents to settle at $2.1028 gallon while gasoline gave up less than a penny to settle at $2.0106 a gallon. Natural gas fell 17.6 cents to settle at $5.814 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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Associated Press Writer Pablo Gorondi contributed to this story from Budapest, Hungary.

(This version CORRECTS SUBS 4th graf to correct to 'five' sted 'four' straight days. Moving on general news and financial services.)

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