Glut turns oil into red ink on OPEC ledgers

By , Senior economics correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Now it is the turn of the once-mighty OPEC oil cartel to walk an uncertain economic tightrope.

A majority of the cartel's 13 members have watched their government balance of payments slide into the red, as world demand for OPEC oil drops -- and pulls oil prices down with it.

Only the wealthiest members -- including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar, plus a few others -- now operate in the black, according to one expert. For the others to wipe out their red ink, he says, OPEC as a whole would have to boost its oil production to almost 22 million barrels a day (bbl/d).

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Instead, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has agreed to cut its output to 17.5 million bbl/d, compared to a peak of nearly 32 million bbl/d in 1979.

OPEC is gambling that later this year Western industrial powers will increase their appetite for cartel oil, that the global glut of petroleum will vanish, and that prices at least will stabilize and perhaps begin to climb.

This throws down a gauntlet to Americans, Europeans, and Japanese to preserve their hard-won conservation gains -- gains which, in the US especially, have been spectacular.

Every month since 1979, according to the American Petroleum Institute (API), US oil imports have declined when compared to the same month of the year before.

Last month, for example, total oil imports fell a huge 28.2 percent below the level of February 1981. Total imports, says the API, have shrunk to the level of early 1972.

Some of this decline stems from the severe US recession. Industry uses less oil when American factories are running at little more than 71 percent of capacity, as they are now.

Major oil companies also are reducing swollen inventories of oil and have not yet begun to stock up for the fall and winter ahead.

OPEC members count on a resurgence of demand, when the US and other industrial economies revive and when oil companies start to build up their stocks.

''If restocking comes on [in July and August],'' says John H. Lichtblau, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, Inc., ''plus economic recovery, then demand for oil will grow.''

The goal of OPEC is two-fold -- to preserve the organization's present pricing structure, based on $34 a barrel for Saudi Arabian light crude, and above all to preserve the unity of the cartel.

These factors, it is believed, impelled Saudi Arabia -- OPEC's biggest producer -- to agree to lower its output another 500,000 barrels a day, to 7 million bbl/d. Not too long ago Saudi production was estimated as high as 10.3 million bbl/d.

OPEC has decided to ''follow the market down,'' as Marshall Thomas of Petroleum Intelligence Weekly put it -- reduce production enough to keep prices from falling through the floor, an occurrence which would cause member nations to scramble for a share of sales.

To prevent such unraveling, the cartel has set up a committee to monitor the production and pricing policies of members. Of prime concern will be those OPEC nations that are cash-short and that might be tempted to break ranks and lower prices in order to earn more money.

Nigeria, for example, has a huge population (more than 80 million, compared to 8 million for Saudi Arabia and less than 3 million for Libya), and Iran needs cash to finance its war with Iraq.

If the Iraqi-Iranian war ends, both these OPEC members would want to expand production greatly. Such expansion -- unless other OPEC powers reduced output equivalently -- could swell the world's oil surplus and wreck OPEC's strategy.

Assuming that cartel discipline holds firm despite cash problems for some members, there remains the problem of non-OPEC oil producers.

Some of these, notably Britain's North Sea fields and Mexico, have been expanding production and at the same time trimming prices. To some extent this offsets OPEC's effort to dry up the current oil glut, estimated to be at least 2 million barrels a day above world demand. By now, however, non-OPEC sources have expanded output about as much as they can.

Some OPEC members -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Libya, Iraq, and Qatar -- have ample reserves of foreign exchange to cushion them through uncertain months ahead. Indonesia also has a good supply of money.

A country like Libya, for example, which is spending more than it takes in, can dip into reserves to balance its books. For nations like Nigeria, borrowing has to be the answer, unless they break OPEC's compact and try to flood the market with cheap oil.

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