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OPEC expected to maintain production quota
Updated: 2005-03-13 14:54

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will probably leave its production quota unchanged at this week's meeting in Iran, while also seeking to keep the price of a barrel of oil at near record levels, analysts say.

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh holds a press conference in Tehran last week. Zanganeh said that OPEC would prefer to see the price of its reference crude basket stabilise at between 35 to 40 dollars per barrel. [AP]

As demand for crude shows no signs of weakening, OPEC president Sheikh Ahmad Fahd al-Sabah said Saturday the cartel would likely maintain the current output ceiling of 27 million barrels per day (bpd).

The International Energy Agency Friday acknowledged the increase in global oil demand, raising its estimate for 2005 by 330,000 barrels per day to 84.3 million. It cited cold weather in the Northern Hemisphere, expected robust growth in the United States and consumption in China.

OPEC, which alone supplies 40 percent of the world's oil production, will meet Wednesday in the Iranian city of Isfahan, its first meeting in Iran since 1971. It comes at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear activities.

With the oil market jittery, the 11-nation cartel will "study the market situation with the aim to stabilize prices and market supply," said Sheikh Ahmad, who is also Kuwait's energy minister.

He added that oil-producing countries who are not OPEC members have been invited to the March 16 meeting to try to calm the market.

But analysts ask if OPEC will do enough in the face of the anticipated demand. The economic growth expected in the United States along with the continued high demand from China, northern Europe, India and Brazil, has raised concerns about supplies.

"If the market would be well supplied, I think prices would be lower," said Adam Sieminski, an analyst at Deutsche Bank.

OPEC should increase production but "there is a difference between what they should do and what they will do," he said. "The supply/demand model suggests that the market is well supplied, but the markets themselves and the prices are telling it differently."

Wednesday in London, Brent North Sea crude oil for delivery in April rocketed to 54.05 dollars a barrel -- exceeding the previous record of 53.36. It closed the week at 53.10.

New York's main contract, light sweet crude for delivery in April, climbed to 54.43 dollars a barrel in closing deals.

Analysts speculate prices could spiral, perhaps reaching as high as 100 dollars a barrel.

Frederic Lasserre, an analyst at Societe Generale, says US President George W. Bush's policy in the Middle East could cause a bounce in prices.

"Some believe, perhaps, that the United States is ready to launch air strikes to interrupt Iran's nuclear program," he said. In that scenario, and along with "the already-high degree of tension in the oil market, it is entirely plausible that prices could rise by 20 US dollars a barrel."

OPEC meanwhile has signalled that it's not interested in lower prices.

"We are satisfied with the current level of prices and we don't think we need to return to a level of 25 dollars a barrel," said Iran's representative to OPEC, Hossein Kazempour Ardebili, on Thursday.

At OPEC's last meeting on January 30, the cartel suspended its price band of between 22-28 dollars a barrel, calling it "unrealistic." Analysts do not expect any changes after the cartel looks at the results of a study on the subject at its talks in Iran this week.

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