OPEC split fuels speculation that oil prices will fall soon

Now that OPEC has failed to agree on production quotas, an early drop in the price of oil is even more likely than before, according to a number of sources in touch with Gulf oil states.

''I'm not talking about next spring, when demand for oil traditionally falls, '' an industry source said.''I'm talking about January or February.

''The official price ($34 a barrel for Arabian light crude) simply cannot be sustained now.''

''Yes, that's right,'' affirmed a source close to fierce OPEC maneuvering going on in the wake of the inconclusive ministerial meeting in Vienna Dec. 19 and 20.

''There is a broad feeling among a number of OPEC states that the price is simply too high, given slack demand and world recession.

''The only way the price can be held at $34 is for the 13 OPEC states to cut production sharply.''

Iran, Libya, and Venezuela made it clear in Vienna that they will continue to pump and to sell as much as they can. It is Iran's refusal to accept a low quota that has helped to create the current impasse within OPEC.

Another source close to Saudi thinking agreed. ''I see a price cut in a very short time now,'' he said. ''A matter of weeks, not months.''

Whether the world banking system will find itself in a new crisis, with less money to lend to even more desperate third-world debtors, depends on how far the price eventually falls, and how quickly.

OPEC's market monitoring committee is to meet in Indonesia in early February to try to fix quotas. The only agreement in Vienna was to peg overall OPEC production at 18.5 million barrels per day for next year, 1 million bbl/d above the current quota.

The existing quota is widely flouted, however. Actual OPEC production today is around 19.8 million bbl/d.

Pro-OPEC analysts are pessimistic about next year. They agree with OPEC ministers who stress in private that the $34 price is very vulnerable now. Both Iran (fighting Iraq) and Libya say they need money urgently.

Iran's position, sources say, is that it wants its quota to be at least 3.2 million bbl/d, almost three times the quota assigned to it last March (1.2 million bbl/d). Iran also wants Saudi Arabia to keep the official price high, so Iranian discounts will appear more attractive.

One of OPEC's central crises is the clash between Iranian and Saudi positions. Sources say Saudi Oil Minister Ahmad Zaki Yamani is prepared to bring down the official price by as much as $4 a barrel.

''Much will depend,'' writes the energy editor of the London Financial Times, Ray Dafter, ''on the organization's ability to fix and enforce production quotas for each of its 13 members.''

But OPEC sources are pessimistic.

World demand is expected to stay low throughout next year because of economic recession and widespread conservation and substitution measures begun when OPEC prices first jumped nine years ago.

Non-OPEC states are now supplying more than half this demand. OPEC itself will lose money this year for the first time in two decades. Its members' demand for imports from the 24 major industrial countries belonging to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) is to drop sharply in 1983, according to the OECD half-yearly forecast just issued in Paris.

Even one piece of good news for OPEC Dec. 23 was shadowed by the overall pessimism within the organization. The news was that a leading non-OPEC producer , Britain, has pegged the price of North Sea oil at $33.50 per barrel until the end of March.

OPEC had feared that a North Sea oil cut would have forced African producers of similar quality crude to drop their prices, and a general price war would have begun. Britain needs every penny of North Sea oil income it can get to support an economy still in the depths of recession.

Nonetheless, sources agreed Iran will keep on leading the way to big discounts. Iranian oil now sells on spot markets for as little as $26 a barrel.

In London, traders appear convinced that lower discounts are inevitable. Spot prices slid downward just before the Christmas break. North Sea (''forties'') crude was selling at more than $2.50 below the official price, at between $30.80 and $31 a barrel.

Meanwhile, sources say attitudes toward lower oil prices outside OPEC are mixed.

France, working hard to build up nuclear power, does not want to see oil prices too low, or its nuclear plants will become uneconomic. Heavy importers, such as Japan and West Germany, want a price cut.

But Israel is pressing the United States to try to keep prices up. Israel is said to fear that much lower oil prices will help Arabs in the long run by wrecking Western efforts to conserve energy and use non-oil sources.

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