Rumors are flying that Saudi Arabia, with its oil production at a 20-year low of about 2.5 million barrels a day, is going to cut its price one way or another.
The Saudis are trying to find ways to sell more oil, and several oil companies that buy from them have urged the kingdom to cut prices, which have not been discounted from official OPEC levels, oil industry sources said.
No agreements have been reached, however, and there are disputes over whether the Saudis or the companies are pushing the issue harder.
A spokesman for Chevron, one of the four American oil companies in the Aramco partnership, said his company was approached by the Saudis with a proposal to set the price of crude oil on the basis of spot market prices of refined petroleum products.
Chevron has not replied to the query, and no discussions are being held about it, the spokesman said.
Two other companies in the partnership, Exxon and Mobil, declined to comment on Saudi oil prices. The remaining partner is Texaco.
Saudi Arabia, almost alone among OPEC members, has been selling virtually all of its crude at official prices, which for the grade known as Saudi light is $28 a barrel. With other oil exporters offering discounts in the face of weak oil demand, Saudi sales have plunged.
An authoritative industry newsletter, Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, said yesterday that there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia had concluded any deals to sell its oil under a so-called "netback pricing" arrangement, with the price of crude determined by the value of the products refined from it less the cost of refining and transportation.
The newsletter said that several oil companies asked the Saudis this summer about buying crude at market-related prices to help bolster the nation's depressed sales.
"Our best understanding is that the original initiative came from the companies' side," said Ken Miller, PIW editor.
In addition to some of the Aramco partners, European and Far Eastern firms also broached the subject with the Saudis, he said.
"The Saudis asked for a lot of 'netback pricing' data in this context, but calling this negotiation is stretching it," Miller said.
"We have heard no sign that any of these deals were concluded," he said.
Observers said the Saudis would be more likely to consider discounting prices if the October meeting ended in failure.
Earlier this summer, the Saudis threatened to raise output and to price crude at market levels if other OPEC members did not stop cheating on agreed-upon prices and production quotas.
Since then, spot market prices for crude and some petroleum products have firmed, a development some analysts attribute to less cheating by some exporters.
Some analysts thought it unlikely that the Saudis would make new pricing agreements prior to the next OPEC meeting on Oct. 3, particularly with the rebound in spot prices for crude.
Yesterday, spot prices for Saudi light were only 10 cents to 20 cents a 42-gallon barrel below the official $28 price.
Egypt, a non-OPEC member, increased its oil prices by between 25 cents and 40 cents a barrel Sept. 1 for the first rise in 15 months. And the Soviet Union, another non-OPEC exporter, raised its prices by about 50 cents a barrel recently.