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Onus on Saudi Arabia to cut supply if prices fall

A general view of a meeting of OPEC oil ministers at OPEC's headquarters in Vienna, June 14, 2012. (REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader)

OPEC’s decision to keep its output quota unchanged Thursday throws the onus on the group’s biggest producer, Saudi Arabia, to cut supply should crude prices extend their drop below $100 a barrel.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries would need to reduce output by 1.6 million barrels a day to meet its targeted ceiling of 30 million barrels a day, secretary-general Abdullah al-Badri said Thursday.

Increased production from Saudi Arabia has been blamed for plunging prices by members including Iran, whose own exports are set to drop as an EU embargo starts on July 1.

Saudi Arabia will make sure there is enough supply in the global crude market, the kingdom’s oil minister said Friday in an interview.

“It puts some of the onus on the Saudis, but at the end of the day, they’re going to remain very responsive to what happens in the world market,” Jason Schenker, president of Prestige Economics LLC, a commodity researcher in Austin, Texas, said in an interview in Vienna Thursday. Iranian supply will “come off the market with the full implementation of the embargo and that could push the number down toward 30 million,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has led the surge in OPEC’s output above its official limit this year, as Brent crude prices rose in March to their highest since July 2008 on concern sanctions against Iran will disrupt Middle East supply. Since then, signs that Europe’s debt crisis will erode fuel demand have driven the price back below $100, a level favored by its Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi.

Brent crude traded at $97.53 a barrel at 2:47 p.m. in London Friday, down 24 percent from this year’s high of $128.40.

Thursday’s gathering was strained by political tensions after Iran complained that other members were taking their customers as the EU boycotts its oil, warning that Saudi Arabia’s higher output risked causing an “imbalance” in the market.

Naimi suggested at the start of the week that OPEC may need to boost the ceiling to account for increased demand in the second half of the year and help ease the burden of high prices on consumers.

The desert kingdom has bolstered output by 11 percent in the past year to 9.9 million barrels a day last month, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. While OPEC no longer sets individual national quotas, by raising output to a three-decade peak, Saudi Arabia has done the most to push total OPEC supply above the target.

The nation will cut production in the second half of the year to 9.5 million, “due to the lower prices and the massive global stock build,” JBC Energy GmbH, a Vienna-based researcher, said in a report Friday.

While most OPEC ministers highlighted the current excess supply, some, including Qatar’s Mohammad bin Saleh al-Sada, said a portion of it would be absorbed by increased demand later this year. The OPEC secretariat’s own analysis in a monthly report showed demand for the group’s crude rising to 30.9 million barrels a day next quarter from 29.3 million currently.

Naimi said Thursday after the session that he was “happy” with the decision and it was good for oil consumers.

“The whole idea is that there will not be any shortages in the market,” Naimi said in the interview with Bloomberg News. “That has been Saudi Arabia’s policy all along. To manage stability of the oil market, keeping it in balance.”

Saudi Arabia will honor any requests to supply its customers within the context of a stable and balanced oil market, according to an OPEC Gulf delegate with knowledge of Saudi oil policy. The person declined to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Some analysts doubt Saudi Arabia will restrain production as readily as Iran and Venezuela would like.

“No, Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to cut production,” Bill Farren-Price, chief executive officer of Petroleum Policy Intelligence, a Winchester, England-based consultant, said in an interview in Vienna Thursday. “It will continue to do what it has been doing until now: meeting customer demand. If customer demand drops, then they will cut back accordingly.”

OPEC hasn’t specified which nations should cut, said Kuwaiti Oil Minister Hani Abdul-Aziz Hussein. “There is no talk of any particular country” reducing, he added when asked whether his country would be trimming output. The group’s limit is a collective one, Hussein said, adding that “it’s more of a wait and see.”

Iran pumped 3.2 million barrels a day last month, according to Bloomberg. Full implementation of the EU ban and U.S. sanctions will “lead to a cut of some 1 million barrels a day in Iranian supplies” in the second half of 2012, the International Energy Agency said in a May 13 report.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 16, 2012, on page 4.

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