Oil nations warily eye possible spring surplus, price drop. But the shaky OPEC cartel is not in the midst of a crisis

With seasonal snow and ice appearing throughout the Northern Hemisphere -- and heating bills on the rise -- it may seem premature to look ahead to next summer. But that is precisely what the oil ministers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will be doing when they convene in Geneva this weekend. They are worried that by next summer the longstanding world oil glut will worsen and prices will slide.

That prospect, it almost goes without saying, delights consumers in the United States, Europe, and Japan, where lower oil prices could decrease the cost of gasoline, airline tickets, and freight transport. Depending on how long prices stay low, they could also give a noninflationary boost to economic growth.

Heating oil prices, which for many Americans are substantially higher this winter, also appear to be peaking, but probably won't fall before the season ends.

So, for the moment, OPEC can meet in unaccustomed luxury: The shaky cartel is not in the midst of a crisis. It has been enjoying a boomlet of demand for its oil in recent months.

OPEC light crude on the free market now fetches slightly more than the same oil sold through official contracts: $27 to $28 a barrel. OPEC nations have been able to boost production by 2 million barrels a day, thus bringing much-needed revenue to their coffers and sopping up the worldwide excess.

This has forestalled the kind of price collapse that has worried oil producers (and bankers) for the past several years. It has also assuaged the acrimonious relations among OPEC members vying to sell more oil.

Yet the increase in oil prices came about because of a marketing fluke, not because of a big change in world energy use.

During late summer and early fall, American and European oil buyers let their inventories run down, hoping to replenish their stocks with cheaper oil. But oil prices didn't fall very far, and buyers had to scramble to meet winter heating needs. Prices rose.

``We've had 13 weeks of price rises for heating oil,'' says Frank P. Kneuttel, an oil analyst with Prudential-Bache Securities. ``But November was a warm month and doesn't justify a big increase. What apparently happened was that the increased amount went into consumers' tanks.''

That gave OPEC breathing room, but a day of reckoning may still come. World oil demand is stagnant and could decrease if the US economy slows in 1986 or '87. OPEC will very soon have to cut production sharply to prevent a price drop, Mr. Kneuttel says, since it takes six weeks for a slow-steaming tanker to reach New York from Ras Tanura, the Saudi Arabian port. A cold winter would give OPEC a bit more time, but not much.

William L. Randol, oil analyst with the First Boston Corporation, says OPEC is undermining its current good fortune by overproducing. Even before the end of 1985, he says, prices will be under pressure.

In the long run, although OPEC nations in the Middle East still hold the lion's share of oil reserves, the increasing output of Canada and Mexico continues to crimp OPEC sales.

When, as seems likely, the surplus reappears next spring, it could grow even more due to factors such as: Iraq's new pipeline across Saudi Arabia; big new Canadian supplies; longer-lasting North Sea and Alaskan North Slope production; nuclear power plants coming on line in the US and Europe.

So, despite the recent firming-up of prices, ``underlying price weakness will be sharply felt by the oil exporting countries and may lead to further struggles over market share among oil producers, OPEC and non-OPEC alike,'' says Richard Adkerson, an oil industry specialist. His comments are part of findings of a new major study released today by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen & Co.

By the late 1980s or early '90s, say many oil analysts, non-OPEC crude oil production will be waning and OPEC -- especially the Middle Eastern OPEC members, and, most of all, Saudi Arabia -- will again be predominant in the world energy picture.

But getting there from here is tough for the cartel. The financing needs of OPEC nations, most of which are in the midst of major domestic development programs, can't wait that long. Falling prices hurt these nations as much as oil surpluses and sluggish demand.

What will happen at the coming OPEC meeting? As always, the key to OPEC is Saudi Arabia; those extraordinary reserves [see chart] show why. The Saudis favor basing crude prices on product prices. But this is controversial and hence probably will be skirted in Geneva.

Mr. Randol figures the oil ministers will ``muddle through'' and will exercise just enough discipline to avert an oil price collapse. CHART: The world oil picture How it looked in 1979 and how it looks today World oil consumption World proven reserves World refining capacity US oil consumption US oil reserves Canadian reserves Mexican reserves Middle East reserves Soviet reserves OPEC oil production OPEC exports (crude and products) OPEC official price Spot OPEC price 1979 Latest* world oil consumption 64.15 million barrels a day 58.89 m.b.d. world proven reserves 641.78 billion barrels 698.68 b.b. world refining capacity 80.08 m.b.d. 74.72 m.b.d. US oil consumption 17.91 m.b.d. 15.15 m.b.d. US oil reserves 27.8 b.b. 27.3 b.b. Canada oil reserves 6.86 b.b. 7.08 b.b. Mexico oil reserves 16 b.b. 48.6 b.b. Middle East oil reserves 370 b.b. 398 b.b. USSR oil reserves 71 b.b. 63 b.b. OPEC production 30.92 m.b.d. 17.4 m.b.d. OPEC exports (crude and products) 28.86 m.b.d. 14.28 m.b.d. OPEC official price $22.84 per barrel $28.00 Spot OPEC price $38.17 $27.35 Source: Arthur Andersen & Co. *Most data reflect year-end 1984.

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