OPEC and allies likely to extend production cuts at meeting

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih speaks to journalists in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. The energy ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates both said Tuesday that those wanting to know whether OPEC will extend its production cuts will have to wait until the cartel's upcoming Vienna meeting on Thursday. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih speaks to journalists in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. The energy ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates both said Tuesday that those wanting to know whether OPEC will extend its production cuts will have to wait until the cartel's upcoming Vienna meeting on Thursday. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

VIENNA — With crude prices at two-year highs, OPEC and allied oil producing-nations appear ready to agree to extend their output cuts at a meeting Thursday after Iraq's energy minister said there was broad agreement for such a move.

Benchmark crude prices are now close to $60 a barrel, depending on the grades, up almost 20 percent since a year ago. And the bets have been that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and their non-OPEC partners will try to keep supply tight by prolonging the daily 1.8 million barrel output reductions agreed to a year ago.

For experts foreseeing such a scenario, the only question is for how long. Some market watchers are predicting that production quotas first agreed on in November 2016 will now be stretched into all of 2018, and the comments by Iraq's Jabbar Ali Hussein Al-Luiebi strengthened such expectations.

"We uphold ... extending the oil production cut for nine months," Luiebi told reporters Wednesday, adding there was broad agreement among all OPEC ministers for the move. "That means it will finish by ... (the) end of 2018."

Such concerted action would be renewed evidence that OPEC is once again a major player in controlling the oil market.

The ability of the 14-nation cartel to regulate prices and supply made it a sometimes feared factor for consuming nations in past decades. Most extreme was the 1973 OPEC oil embargo on Western consumers that led to widespread economic crises. But its role as a key regulator started fading in recent years, as U.S. shale producers started pumping up their output. That led to oversupply and a steep fall in prices from over $100 to below $40 a barrel by last year.

OPEC members in the past have regularly ignored production quotas in their drive for maximum profits. But the cartel's strategy to flood the market — and drive U.S. shale producers out of business — did not work. So it reversed course last year, joining forces with oil powerhouse Russia and other oil producing allies to crimp supplies. And with member states this time generally keeping to their production limits, OPEC Secretary General Mohammad Sanusi Barkindo says the alliance has attained its goal.

"We have accomplished what naysayers thought would be impossible," he told a 24-nation meeting of OPEC and non-OPEC allies this week. "The decisions we made were historic."

Even so, the strategy of continued cuts to drive up prices does not seem sustainable over the longer run. With prices now at two-year highs, U.S. producers who mothballed operations when oil was cheap are coming back into the market in force.

U .S. crude oil production already has grown by 15 percent since last year to nearly 10 million barrels per day, just behind Russia and Saudi Arabia. The International Energy Agency expects the U.S. to become the biggest net exporter by the end of the 2020s.

The extra crude is welcome for now, with the global economy booming. But at some point the balance could again tip from relatively tight supplies to an oversupply, and a drop in prices.

"An extension of the production cut agreement is still needed," to prevent oversupply, said the JBC Energy Market Report. "However, what the producers should not want is to starve the market too much going forward as U.S. shale in particular has proven again and again that it can surprise."

With the Iraqi oil minister suggesting the extension is a done deal, the prospect faded that geopolitics could yet strain OPEC unity on the way forward.

Traditional tensions between OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia and Iran have led to disarray in the past and have spiked in recent months, with their struggle for Middle East dominance potentially exacerbating different positions on oil.

The Saudis favor continued cuts, but Iran wants greater market share as it claws back from the effect of more than a decade or sanctions that were lifted as part of its 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers. Now pumping below 4 million barrels a day, Iran has said it wants to add another 1 million barrels within three years.

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