Potential market volatility means uncertainty at OPEC

The 12 OPEC ministers have stuck for the sixth time on the production targets they set nearly two years ago, amid increasing long-term uncertainties about global energy markets.

Ecuador's Wilson Pastor-Morris, left, the president of OPEC, and Abdalla Salem el Badri, the Libyan secretary general of OPEC.
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VIENNA // In the cold of the Austrian capital, the 12 OPEC ministers on Thursday made their sixth consecutive decision to stick with the production targets the organisation of oil exporters established nearly two years ago.

Braving the chill with them were the usual varied mob of camp followers – market analysts and media representatives – who spent that day in the basement of the new OPEC headquarters to hear the official pronouncement of what was widely held to be a foregone conclusion.

There was also a newcomer who has recently risen to prominence in the organisation that controls 40 per cent of the world's oil supply.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the assistant minister of petroleum affairs for Saudi Arabia, was introduced on Thursday as the chairman of a committee to forge a long-term strategy for OPEC.

The organisation plans to unveil the main points of the plan on December 11 at an extraordinary meeting in Ecuador so details are hard to ascertain for the moment.

But it appears to have been prompted by continued – some would say increasing – long-term uncertainties about global energy markets.

The strategy framework is needed because "the producer is put in a harder environment for figuring out the uncertainties of supply, demand and energy mix and how to allocate investment", Prince Abdulaziz said.

"A grave uncertainty we have is what will be the future energy mix … it cannot happen that you can ask a producer to continue investing when he is so tied up with the trajectory of future demand."

OPEC's short-term decision to stay put on quotas, after a year in which oil prices have seldom strayed from the group's preferred range of between US$70 and $85, might glibly be viewed as the path of least resistance.

But the greying skies and the prick of autumn wind in Vienna add drama to Prince Abdulaziz's hints of deeper currents.

If the OPEC president, Wilson Pastor-Morris, is to be heeded, the decision on output targets reflects a delicate balance between hopes that global economic recovery will continue to support crude at its current level of about US$83 a barrel, and worries that oil-price volatility will reappear, sinking industry plans to pump money into energy development.

Mr Pastor-Morris, who is also the Ecuadorean minister of non-renewable natural resources, said: "With so much uncertainty about the world economic outlook as we head into winter in the northern hemisphere, all parties in the industry must redouble their efforts to counter future price volatility.

"Indeed, for oil producers assessing the oil market outlook, the attention is now more on the rate, the size and the global spread of economic recovery than on the usual seasonal factors for this time of the year."

OPEC has hailed its action in late 2008 as one of its biggest successes. The group cut its aggregate output target by a record 4.2 million barrels a day as crude tumbled from its peak in July of more than $147 a barrel to less than $34 in December.

Maybe so, but the oil exporters' group is now clearly once again worried about skating on thin ice.

Outside the group's headquarters, the shops and restaurants lining the narrow streets of the historic heart of Vienna exude less warmth. Most are sparsely patronised as Europe teeters on the brink of what many fear will be a second economic downturn.

It is a reality check OPEC appears to be heeding.