Why gasoline prices are falling: OPEC vs. the three oil mavericks

Few people in oil-importing lands will shed tears over the fact that OPEC, for the time being, has lost its ability to bend the world's economy out of shape by hiking the price of oil.

After three straight years of declining free-world demand for oil - and with a fourth decline possible in 1983 - the 13-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is splintered by dissension.

Three members - Iran, Libya, and Venezuela - openly flout OPEC decrees by boosting their production well above quotas assigned to them by cartel decision in March 1982.

This scramble to carve out larger shares of a dwindling world market angers Saudi Arabian leaders, who insist that cartel members - for their own good - should trim their production enough to keep OPEC prices firm at the benchmark, or official, level of $34 a barrel.

Holding to that price themselves, the Saudis now pump only 6 million barrels daily, well below their assigned OPEC quota of 7.5 million barrels a day (m.b.d.) and far less than the nearly 10 m.b.d. they produced early in 1981.

The Saudis simply cannot sell more oil at $34 a barrel, when North African OPEC members, plus Iran, sell similar or better quality crudes at discount prices.

''The more Saudi Arabia produces,'' says John H. Lichtblau, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation Inc., ''the weaker the price becomes.''

Retail gasoline prices in the United States have dropped about 1 cent in the past month to $1.31 a gallon.

Adding to OPEC's dilemma is the fact that countries outside the cartel are pumping more oil than ever before, with Mexico and Britain's fields in the North Sea leading the way.

China's output almost certainly will grow and a vast new field just discovered off the California coast eventually may add substantially to US production.

That much said, it would be premature to herald the demise of OPEC, which during the turbulent 1970s sent world oil prices skyrocketing from $3 to $34 a barrel.

Stringent energy conservation by oil-importing nations, switching to other fuels, and world recession have combined to cut free-world demand for OPEC oil from a top of 31 m.b.d. to about 19 million.

''Oil demand in the noncommunist world,'' Mr. Lichtblau says, ''declined 12 percent over a three-year period (1980-82), from 52 m.b.d. to 46 million barrels a day.''

The West, however, will not stay in the economic doldrums forever. Economic recovery will spur the demand for oil. What happens then in the tense relationship between OPEC members and the countries that, willy-nilly, must buy their oil?

Two recent studies forecast rising demand for OPEC oil and a disappearance of the current glut, if and when Western economies start to grow briskly.

One study, prepared by the Cambridge Energy Research Associates of Cambridge, Mass., foresees a possible ''explosion of demand'' for OPEC oil and a resulting shortage as early as 1986, if the world in general works its way out of recession during 1983.

The second report, issued by International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris, puts the period of acute shortage toward the end of this century, assuming that OPEC members, other third world countries, and industrialized Western nations all increase their consumption of oil.

Both studies emanate from respected sources and carry weight. But other experts, including Lichtblau, see little prospect of another oil crisis in the near term. For one thing, latest estimates indicate that economic recovery will come more slowly than had been expected, with the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan experiencing a combined 1983 growth rate less than 2 percent.

If that holds true, Lichtblau says, 1983 should see an unchanged demand for OPEC petroleum, or possibly another small decline. ''Even if recovery comes,'' he says, ''there should be no shortage in the 1986-90 period, unless there is a major physical interruption of supplies''; that is, unless the world were suddenly deprived of Saudi oil, for example.

''Short of that,'' Lichtblau says, ''there will be enough oil, and there should be no reason for a real increase in its price, except in line with inflation.''

Much depends on whether OPEC, at its Dec. 9 ministerial meeting in Vienna, can reimpose production and pricing discipline on its 13 members. Outside observers doubt this can be done.

Iran, for example - assigned a 1.2 m.b.d. quota by the cartel - currently pumps 2.5 m.b.d., according to industry specialists, and aims at 3 m.b.d.

Citing the financial drain of a lingering war with Iraq and the economic requirements of a large population, Iranian leaders defy cartel efforts, led by Saudi Arabia, to cut Tehran's oil output.

Libya, with an assigned quota of 750,000 barrels daily, produces twice that amount. Venezuela pumps several hundred thousand barrels more than its OPEC quota of 1.5 m.b.d. Iraq is expected to produce well above its current 1 million barrels daily when the Iran-Iraq war finally ends.

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