OPEC's new agreement to disagree

The once-mighty OPEC oil cartel - scourge of oil-importing nations over the past decade - has failed in its bid to reimpose a tight petroleum market throughout the world.

This broad lesson flows from the inability of the 13 member states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to decide how much oil each member should pump and at what price it should be sold.

Rivalries, even bitter enmity, among some OPEC members, plus sharply differing economic needs, still override the cartel's urgent search for a unified approach to prices and production.

Iran and Iraq, founding members of the cartel, are locked in a deadly but inconclusive border war, with the advantage currently tipping toward Iran.

The Iranian regime led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini describes other OPEC members - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms - as traitors to the cause of fundamental Islam.

To finance its war and possibly to foment revolution in the Gulf, Iran demands a larger slice of OPEC's production pie - at the expense of the Saudis, still the cartel's largest producer.

The Khomeini regime wants more money to prosecute policies that Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other Arabs of the Gulf regard as threats to themselves.

At a less bellicose level, Nigeria, Venezuela, and other OPEC members with large populations relative to resources demand the right to pump enough oil to meet their development goals.

Against this background the issues the oil ministers brought to the Vienna bargaining table proved too contentious to resolve.

''Having had their meeting,'' says analyst Lawrence Goldstein, ''they agreed to do nothing.''

Put another way, says Mr. Goldstein, executive vice-president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation Inc., ''The Saudis showed they were willing to play the game a little while longer, to muddle through in December and January, then reconsider the matter in February.''

Muddling through, explains Goldstein, means that the Saudis - with an official OPEC production ceiling of 7.5 million barrels a day (m.b.d.) - will continue to pump about 5.5 m.b.d., their current level.

This leaves some room for Iran, Libya, and Venezuela - all of which are exceeding their official quotas - to produce oil above the cartel's agreement of last March.

That decision, quickly broken by several members, called on the 13 OPEC states to produce no more than 17.5 m.b.d., with each member assigned a production ceiling - or slice of the pie - within that total.

Price discounts also are offered by some OPEC members on their oil, but not by the Saudis. This makes Saudi oil at $34 a barrel more expensive than equivalent grades from other lands.

The four US oil companies that produce Saudi oil through a joint company called Aramco claim they cannot afford to keep on buying their full commitment of expensive Saudi oil.

With world demand for oil slack, and with some OPEC members pumping above their quotas, the only way Saudi Arabia could maintain the cartel's official price structure was to lower Saudi output.

To spread the sacrifice that Saudi Arabia now bears alone, Saudi Oil Minister Ahmad Zaki Yamani urged at Vienna that members return to and stick to their assigned production quotas.

The noncommunist world now buys 18.5 to 19 m.b.d. of OPEC oil, much of it at discount. A return to the 17.5 m.b.d. ceiling, Sheikh Yamani argued, would reduce the global oil glut and prevent an OPEC price war.

Yamani did not prevail. ''Reluctantly or not,'' says Goldstein, ''the Saudis had no alternative but to buy a little more time.''

By February, when winter demand for heating oil declines, analysts believe, the Saudis will make another attempt to whip OPEC into line on production and prices.

An end to the world recession would go far to eliminate the cartel's problems , for oil demand by the world's industrial powers would quicken. Recovery, however, is expected to be slow in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe.

Growing oil production outside the OPEC bloc, meanwhile - notably in the North Sea (Britain and Norway), Mexico, and potentially in the US - creates fresh alternatives to OPEC oil.

Worldwide energy conservation and switching to substitute fuels - mostly coal and natural gas - also militate against brisk growth for OPEC.

Tumbling prices for gasoline and heating oil no doubt would be good news for consumers, who have seen rising oil prices strip more and more money from their wallets.

In the present circumstances, however - ironic as it may seem - an OPEC price war could harm the world economy, experts agree. The international banking system has counted on surplus OPEC funds to provide loan capital that Western banks have extended to poor nations of the world.

In 1980, OPEC as a whole garnered a disposable surplus of more than $100 billion. This year the cartel will end up billions of dollars in the red - that is, some member states will have to borrow to balance their own books.

That being the case, loans needed by third- world debtors to service past debts might be hard to come by. This could lead to defaults, which would plunge the world's banking system into disarray.

Lower oil prices, on the other hand, would reduce import bills for those third-world nations whose debts have been run up partly because of the huge cost of buying foreign oil.

Non-OPEC oil producers - Mexico, Britain, Norway, and others - have ridden on the cartel's coattails so far as prices are concerned. OPEC set the price and oil exporters outside the cartel reaped the benefit. If the cartel's price structure broke and oil prices tumbled, the income of nations as diverse as Britain and Mexico - both of which depend on high earnings from oil - would dwindle.

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