OPEC to boost official oil output by 800,000 barrels a day

VIENNA, Austria - OPEC, facing mounting international pressure to pump more oil to stem surging fuel prices, agreed Sunday to boost the group's official output of crude by 800,000 barrels a day.

Analysts cautioned that the increase, which was roughly in line with what many had predicted, won't do much to roll back prices because OPEC members already are producing at least 700,000 barrels above their current quotas.

The decision was reached after four hours of informal talks in Vienna among members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

The new quota will take effect Oct. 1, and OPEC members agreed to meet again Nov. 12 to reassess market conditions and, if necessary, adjust output.

Algerian oil minister Chakib Khelil and Qatar oil minister Abdullah bin Hamad Al Attiyah first confirmed the increase, which adds 3 percent to OPEC's current official production of 25.4 million barrels a day.

Ministers began a formal meeting later to ratify the increase but postponed it until Monday without making a formal announcement of the new quota.

''This is our best assessment of what the market needs now,'' Saudi Arabian oil minister Ali Naimi said of the 800,000 additional barrels. ''It will improve and moderate the price, and if it doesn't we have a mechanism to trigger some more.''

Kuwaiti oil minister Sheik Saud Nasser al-Sabah called the amount of the increase ''a fair figure which satisfies everybody.''

''We'll have to wait and see how the market reacts. We don't know. It's very unpredictable,'' al-Sabah said.

In Washington, the U.S. government gave Saudi Arabia credit for the OPEC production increase but said it is too early to know what effect it will have on the shortage in world oil inventories.

''Whether such an increase will stabilize the market remains to be seen,'' Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said. ''Nonetheless, this expected production increase will bring needed additional oil into world markets.''

Britain responded cautiously to the cartel's decision, making clear that the step would be of value only if the market reacts to bring prices down.

The news came after the completion of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Brunei, where officials issued a statement earlier Sunday urging OPEC members to stabilize oil prices.

Paul Jeremias, deputy secretary of the Philippine finance ministry, welcomed the decision. ''It will be much better to have lower oil prices because there will be less impact on the poor,'' he said in Brunei.

High fuel costs have sparked concern and even outrage in several consuming nations. French truckers and taxi drivers last week blocked roads to protest gasoline prices, while their counterparts in Belgium and Germany and farmers in Britain have mounted similar, if smaller, efforts to disrupt traffic. Americans living in areas where there is heavy snowfall worry that low fuel inventories will lead to soaring prices to heat their homes this winter.

On a diplomatic level, European finance ministers have expressed concern that surging prices could crimp world economic growth, while finance ministers from 21 Pacific Rim countries warned in Brunei that rising oil prices could damage their economies.

''We did all that we could, but we cannot solve the whole problem,'' Attiyah, the Qatari oil minister, told reporters.

He said the heavy taxes levied on fuel in many oil-importing nations are partly to blame for current high prices, and he urged governments of such countries to work ''very hard'' to trim them.

Iranian oil minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh agreed, saying, ''This is the opportunity and the time for the consuming countries to act for the benefit of their consumers.''

Still, the size of the increase offers scant comfort for Americans who depend on heating oil to warm their homes, analysts said.

''This agreement is doing nothing for U.S. consumers, nor could it have been expected to given the tightness in the home heating oil market in the U.S. and the refineries' lack of capacity,'' said Leo Drollas, chief economist of the London-based Center for Global Energy Studies.

Refineries are working almost flat out to produce heating oil already, he said, and it will take at least 45 days before any new barrels of crude can reach consumers in the form of heating oil.

Crude prices fell Friday in anticipation of an increase by OPEC, which produces about a third of the world's oil.

Futures contracts dropped $1.76 to $33.63 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, putting an end to a surge that had seen prices jump 30 percent since Aug. 1. In London on the International Petroleum Exchange, October Brent crude from the North Sea fell $1.77 to $32.78 a barrel.

Saudi Arabia, OPEC's largest producer and exporter, will provide the biggest share of the new quota increase.

The Saudis, with Algeria's support, asked for an even bigger increase of 1 million barrels a day, ministers said. But many OPEC members, including Iran and Venezuela, are constrained by a lack of spare capacity and indicated a preference for a more modest rise in production.


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