The impact of falling oil prices

Price cutting by state-owned oil companies in Norway and Britain will have only a short-term effect on the prices consumers pay for heating oil and gasoline, experts say.

''The initial cuts shouldn't have all that much effect,'' says William Patton , director of energy services at Chase Econometrics, a forecasting firm. ''The cuts are not that large, and they do not involve that large a volume of crude oil.'' For example, oil from Britain accounts for only about 6.5 percent of United States imports.

Still, analysts view the price reductions this week as especially significant: They are changes in the official contract price, which cover long periods of time, as opposed to daily fluctuations in the short-term ''spot,'' or cash, market.

The recent softening in oil prices does reinforce a US Energy Information Administration forecast that the fuel oil and natural gas used to heat homes this winter will cost consumers little, or no more than last year.

The pricing moves by Norway and Britain have caused considerable turmoil in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The latest reductions by the two non-OPEC countries, if followed by other producers, could trigger a downward price spiral that would have significant consequences, analysts say.

A major reduction in oil prices would help oil-consuming nations by lowering their energy costs, thus reducing inflation in those countries. But a plunge in oil prices would pose serious problems for oil-exporting nations like Mexico, Venezuela, and Nigeria. These nations rely heavily on oil revenue to pay their large international debts. If developing nations' oil revenues were slashed, United States banks, which made large loans to such nations, also could suffer. On Wall Street, oil stocks would likely be viewed as less attractive.

The contract price reductions began Monday, when Norway's Statoil, a relatively small North Sea producer, said it would sell a large part of its oil at open-market, as opposed to contract, prices. In effect that cut prices by about $1.25 a barrel. The British National Oil Corporation, a larger factor in the world oil market, announced Wednesday it would chop the contract price of its North Sea oil $1.35 a barrel, to $28.65.

In February 1983 a similar move by Britain forced OPEC to trim prices about $ 5 a barrel, from the benchmark price of $34, for Saudi Arabian light crude.

So it is not surprising that Abdulhady Taher, the governor of Saudi Arabia's marketing agency Petromin, said in London that this week's moves by Britain and Norway are ''of great significance to all of us.''

OPEC announced Thursday that it will hold an emergency meeting Oct. 29 in Geneva to plan a response to the downward shift in oil prices.

''OPEC countries are all determined to maintain and strengthen the price and will take every necessary measure in this respect,'' said a statement by the 13 -nation group's secretariat. The document warned of ''far-reaching adverse consequences'' for the world economy if a downward price spiral developed.

It is by no means certain that OPEC can avoid a downward price trend, analysts say. ''I give 50 percent odds that OPEC can patch this thing together'' without a major price decline, says Stephen A. Smith, director of the energy group at Data Resources Inc., another forecasting firm.

An executive at a major oil company, who asked not to be named, said: ''This doesn't mean OPEC is dead,'' adding that there is a lot of excess crude oil and refinery capacity, which will make it difficult to prop up prices.

Now experts are watching Nigeria. Its oil is similar in quality to that from North Sea fields, but carries an official contract price of $30 a barrel. In the past, Nigerian officials have warned that they would match North Sea prices ''cent for cent.''

Analysts find the price cuts difficult to explain. US demand for oil products has risen over the past year, and demand in Europe is flat or down only slightly , Mr. Smith says. And OPEC cut its production from 17.7 million barrels a day in July to about 16.7 million in September, he adds.

Some analysts say that OPEC's production figures may be inaccurate, because some members may be exceeding their production quotas or undercutting the cartel's price to boost their own revenue. Another possibility is that when British Oil finished summer maintenance work, the additional production that resulted when the equipment came back on stream threw the market out of kilter.

OPEC has a variety of options for preventing a continued downward price spiral, experts say. One approach would be to cut production further in a bid to boost prices. OPEC members might have to find a way to compensate Nigeria for not dropping its price to meet Britain's and Norway's.

But tightening production is not an appealing option: OPEC nations currently have roughly 50 percent more production capacity then they are using.

Another possibility would be to lower the price differential between heavy crude, which is selling relatively well, and lighter OPEC crude, which competes with North Sea crude.

Refiners have recently made equipment changes so they can use more heavy oil, which commands a lower price than light crude.

Fuel costs in selected cities. (Price per million BTUs for residential heating for January of each year.) 1975 1979 1983 Gas Oil Gas Oil Gas Oil Atlanta $1.17 --- $2.26 --- $4.40 --- Boston 2.29 2.89 3.40 3.98 7.78 8.86 Chicago 1.41 2.45 2.90 3.92 5.26 8.57 Denver .78 --- 1.75 --- 2.80 --- Houston 1.41 --- 3.15 --- 5.96 --- Los Angeles 1.41 --- 2.33 --- 4.68 --- Minneapolis 1.23 2.75 2.59 3.71 5.68 8.48 New York 2.02 2.88 3.83 4.18 7.74 8.97 Seattle 1.98 2.94 3.08 3.88 6.84 9.34 St. Louis 1.28 2.70 2.72 NA 5.79 8.16 Washington, D.C. 2.02 2.75 3.00 4.04 8.16 8.90

NA - not available

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