OPEC on guard for falling prices

Keeps production at current levels

The Associated PressSeptember 12, 2006 

— A wary OPEC said Monday that it will continue pumping crude at current levels, but made it clear that it would consider scaling back production if oil prices keep plummeting.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- anxious to keep prices that are at five-month lows from free-falling -- pledged to "vigilantly monitor" the combination of rising inventories and easing political tensions that have pushed crude down by almost $13 a barrel since midsummer.

OPEC's output quota will remain at 28 million barrels a day, the 11-nation group said, acknowledging that supplies are "more than adequate" to satisfy world demand. Including Iraq, which is not bound by the quota system, OPEC's daily production is about 30 million barrels.

But the group, which produces about 40 percent of the world's crude, is keeping its options open in case prices don't stabilize. OPEC President Edmund Daukoru, who is Nigeria's oil minister, said he would consult with other members "should market conditions warrant" action before they meet again in December.

Key members conceded that some of the factors that had held prices aloft are gone.

Light sweet crude hit a record $78.40 in mid-July, just after fighting erupted in Lebanon, but the hostilities have ended. Also, tensions related to Iran's nuclear program, which had stoked prices, are easing amid progress in talks aimed at averting United Nations sanctions.

Light, sweet crude for October delivery fell as low as $64.85 Monday on the New York Mercantile Exchange before settling at $65.61, a decline of 64 cents.

Each $10 drop in price, analysts say, translates into a 25-cent drop at the gas pump. In the U.S., retail gasoline prices average $2.62 a gallon.

Some OPEC ministers, including Iran's Kazem Vaziri Hamaneh, suggested that prices shouldn't be allowed to fall below $60.

Daukoru said a consensus emerged about the optimal price, but, when asked what that was, said: "It's a marketplace. ... It cannot be specified."

Analysts said one alternative to formally cutting production targets, which could unsettle markets and send prices soaring again, could be to have members quietly and informally pump less.

Jason Schenker, an analyst with Wachovia, said OPEC essentially "empowered members to take their own actions as needed."

"You get the sense that the number that they're going to defend is probably a lot closer to $60 a barrel than it is to $50 a barrel," said John Kilduff, an oil analyst at Fimat USA in New York. OPEC members long have contended that the $50 range is ideal.

Whether OPEC succeeds in putting a floor underneath prices "will come down to whether or not they can exert discipline" in the event that the output quota is reduced, Kilduff said.

Ali Naimi, oil minister of Saudi Arabia, the world's No. 1 oil exporter, said he was "very optimistic" about global oil demand next year, playing down concerns that world economic growth might be slowing and characterizing recent price drops as insignificant "blips."

Supplies remain ample despite concerns about Iran, chronic outages in Iraq and attacks on oil infrastructure by militants in Nigeria -- Africa's biggest producer. U.S. inventories are at their highest levels since 1998, the Department of Energy reported last week.

Iraqi oil minister Hussain al-Shahristani said that his government will reinforce its military presence in the north of the country to protect oil facilities targeted by saboteurs. Iraq produces more than 2 million barrels a day.

Daukoru expressed concern Monday that prices could face further pressure in 2007 if production from non-OPEC nations such as Angola, Brazil and Caspian Sea countries such as Azerbaijan rises significantly, as expected.

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