Oil markets play a price drum roll

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

With cheaper oil already a fact on world spot markets, pushed down by slack demand, oil analysts here say governments cannot prevent formal price cuts of at least $2 to $4 a barrel very soon.

Britain may still be the first country to cut its oil prices, despite the government's reluctance to be the first major producer to do so since OPEC failed to reach a price and quota agreement last month, analysts also believe.

Meanwhile, the 13 member states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) face unhappy options as Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, try to regain unity.

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No one inside or outside OPEC has wanted to be the first to set off a fall in prices, for fear it could turn into a deep slide.

''But market forces are taking over,'' one London oil analyst points out.

Saudi Oil Minister Ahmad Zaki Yamani said in a magazine interview published Feb. 11 that he ''sees no way out of a price reduction.'' Sheikh Yamani seemed to be signaling in public a campaign in private to persuade OPEC as a whole to abandon the official reference price. He was thought to want to reduce it to $30 a barrel. He said a price cut was ''the only way out.''

Meanwhile, Libya has warned against a price reduction, saying that such a move was ''an imperialist scheme'' designed to undermine OPEC national economies.

Two weeks after the failed Geneva meeting of OPEC oil ministers, spot prices for North Sea crude oil were $4.50 a barrel below the official OPEC level of $33 .50 per barrel for similar-type oil. OPEC oil was slightly higher at about $29. 75 a barrel, compared with the OPEC reference price of $34.

At the same time, constant talk of price cuts has dried up trading. Holders of oil are using up supplies before buying more, hoping for cheaper oil by March.

Demand was so slow that OPEC had reduced its output to less than 16 million barrels a day, against 19.5 million only a few months ago. As the weather grows warmer toward spring, demand will drop even further.

With the waiting game continuing, Gulf Oil Corporation has refused to buy two large cargoes of North Sea oil in recent days, claiming the price was just too high.

For the moment, the British government is keeping North Sea oil prices up to see whether OPEC members will be the first to cut.

But the Soviet Union, Egypt, and the US have all cut prices on specific contracts.

On contracts started Feb. 1, the Soviets are selling Urals export grade to Europe at just above $29 a barrel. Egypt has also reduced its Suez blend to $29, and prices for west Texas grades have dropped by $1.

''Rightly or wrongly,'' the respected Petroleum Intelligence Weekly reported Feb. 7, ''the world oil market has once again decided that a basic reduction in price is inevitable.

''This perception, more than anything else, accounts for the continuing plunge in spot crude oil and product prices and a near paralysis of buying and selling activity.''

A great deal of attention remains focused on North Sea crude oil, the leading non-OPEC variety. It competes directly with oil from OPEC members Libya and Nigeria.

Sheikh Yamani alarmed the British government Jan. 24 after the Geneva meeting by saying publicly that North Sea prices were about to go down $3 to $4 a barrel.

Quickly, Energy Minister Nigel Lawson told the two leading North Sea producers, British Petroleum (BP) and Shell Oil Company, as well as the price-fixing and trading British National Oil Corporation (BNOC), to hold prices at the official level.

It is reported here that one inducement hinted at by Mr. Lawson was the possibility of lower taxes on North Sea oil in the British budget March 15. Total taxes now amount to 90 percent of North Sea revenue.

BP has long wanted a lower price, like Gulf, but because it is a British producer, it is subject to government influence.

BNOC for its part is in a difficult position. Producing companies control production, but BNOC must then buy and sell about 51 percent of its output. There are hints the government is looking at ways to allow more flexibility.

At the moment, neither BP nor Shell cuts production when demand drops. Heavy taxes make it more attractive for them to sell all they can. Quick changes are held to be necessary by a number of analysts here, but the government has been reluctant to lose the revenue from high taxes.

Meanwhile, OPEC has dismal options, analysts report. Among them:

* It can cut its official price of $34 a barrel by $2 to $4 and set production quotas as well. Also necessary would be an agreement of differentials - premiums on Nigerian, Libyan, and Venezuelan oil to offset their higher grades and closeness to major markets.

* Gulf states could announce price cuts of their own.

* OPEC could leave the price at $34 and get on with fixing detailed production quotas for each quarter of 1983. This has proved impossible to achieve so far because Iran, Libya, and Venezuela all insist on pumping as much as they can.

* OPEC could do nothing at all. That, however, would mean falling income for member states, while oil companies continue to draw on existing supplies.

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