Saudi Arabian oil minister says kingdom ready to boost output

President Obama may be traveling the country this week to tout his energy policy, but the oil market’s attention is focused on Saudi Arabia and its production plans.

The kingdom’s oil minister insisted this week that oil markets are amply supplied and that it stands ready to boost output. Its council of ministers asserted that excessively high petroleum prices threaten the global economy and that a downturn would lead to an abrupt pullback in prices, hurting the interests of oil exporters and consumers.

Last week, the transport arm of state-owned Saudi Aramco booked at least nine supertankers — far more than usual — for shipments to the United States, according to traders and Lloyd’s List. Each tanker can carry 2 million barrels of oil.

And the Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, told reporters in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday that the kingdom was producing 9.9 million barrels a day, about three-quarters of which is exported.

Yet oil markets remain unimpressed. On Wednesday, the price of the West Texas Intermediate grade of crude oil for May delivery rose $1.20 to $107.27 a barrel — about where it was a week earlier. Expensive crude is driving up gasoline prices — a fact the Obama team worries will hurt the president’s reelection prospects.

“What the Saudis are trying to do is to change the psychology of the market and demonstrate that the market is well supplied,” said Robin West, chairman of PFC Energy, a consulting firm.

Yet concern about rising demand and tensions with Iran continue to offset Saudi assurances and any increase in U.S. production. New restrictions on transactions with Iran’s central bank are pinching Iranian foreign trade, including crude oil. Last week, the International Energy Agency said sanctions may carve 800,000 to 1 million barrels a day out of Iranian exports — three times last year’s increase in U.S. output.

China, last year the biggest customer for Iranian oil, on Wednesday said its purchases of Iranian crude plunged to 290,000 barrels a day in February, a 45 percent drop from a year before, with Saudi Arabia filling in much of the difference. That drop, however, may have more to do with a dispute over purchase terms than with U.S. and European pressure to curtail purchases.

Naimi said that Saudi Arabia could boost output to 12.5 million barrels a day to meet demand but that customers are not interested in buying more than they are now.

“We ask the customers, ‘Do you need more?’ And invariably the answer is, ‘No, thank you,’ ” he said, according to Reuters.

One major oil trader, who requested anonymity to protect business relationships, said that if Saudi Arabia really wanted to tamp down prices it could lower its asking prices and then customers might buy more. Saudi prices are adjusted monthly, but the trader said Saudi Aramco is “extraordinarily inflexible” in the terms it offers buyers.

“That makes it difficult for them to turn their rhetoric about supply into a signal to the market,” the trader said.

But West said that it would make no sense to expect Saudi Arabia to accept lower prices than other nations and that near-
record output level showed that “the Saudis are really stepping up here.”

The most recent Energy Information Administration data show U.S. imports rising slightly from Saudi Arabia, Canada and Venezuela and dropping from Nigeria, Russia and Mexico.

Frank Verrastro, director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said some of the tankers booked by Saudi Arabia could be “prepositioned . . . closer to consumption centers” to respond quickly in the event of an even sharper spike in oil prices, a scenario that both the U.S. and Saudi governments fear would resemble the 2008 spike and subsequent collapse.

Verrastro said the tankers could also be destined for the expanded Motiva refinery in Port Arthur, Tex. A joint venture between Saudi Aramco and Shell, the refinery will reopen with 600,000 barrels a day of capacity, more than double its previous level.

“As an independent refiner, the more oil that’s available the better,” said Bill Day, a spokesman for Valero, the largest U.S. oil refiner. “To us it would make more sense to have the Obama administration approve the Keystone pipeline to bring low-cost oil from Canada rather than rely on imported oil from the Middle East, but the more oil the better.”

Valero owns refineries able to use Canada’s low-cost, low-quality tar-sands crude and would have a competitive advantage if it could buy it in larger quantities.

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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