In a move viewed by sources here as maneuvering before OPEC's meeting next week on the price of oil, Saudi Arabia yesterday said it is considering increasing output by a million barrels a day.
"I don't rule out this possibility," Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmen Zaki Yamani said in London, adding, "I think it will be 1 million barrels a day to start with and we'll watch the market."
Saudi Arabia, the leading oil exporter, imposed a production ceiling of 8.5 million barrels a day when second-ranking Iran, also a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, resumed exports in March.
Increased Saudi production would help stabilize world oil prices, which have risen by 35 percent since the first of the year, and would easethe overall oil shortfall that the U.S. Energy Department has estimated at between 1.5 million to 2 million barrels a day.
Earlier this month, in a Riyadh interview, Yamani said the Saudis were considering an increase of 500,000 barrels a day beginning in July. Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger has stressed, however, that the United States had no formal confirmation that the Saudis would boost production.
Yamani's remarks in London followed a report in the Middle East Economic Survey, a respected trade letter with close ties to the Saudi government, that Saudi Arabia was planning to increase its exports.
Yesterday, Yamani again tied increased production to further reductions in industrial countries' oil imports.
"No matter how much we increase our production, under the present circumstances we cannot achieve anything unless the consumers cut their consumption drastically," news services quoted Yamani as saying.
"If it doesn't happen, it is better for Saudi Arabia to stay with its present ceiling of 8.5 million barrels a day," Yamani continued.
In Washington, senior State and Energy Department officials stressed that the U.S. government still has received no formal indications of the Saudis' intentions.
One State official said, "This move could strengthen [the Saudis'] hand in the OPEC talks" in Geneva starting Tuesday. Saudi Arabia is reported to be searching for a common accord among the 13 cartel members for uniform price structure. Since the last quarterly OPEC meeting, the Saudis have held most of their oil prices at $14.55 a barrel, while other OPEC members are charging $20 or more.
Still another factor in a decision to raise output, say Energy Department officials, would be that the Saudis are concerned about the price instability in the spot market.
"It is our policy in Saudi Arabia to stop the panic in the spot market in Rotterdam and Singapore, to unify the price of oil again and stop this multitiered pricing system and to try to come back again to a balanced supply and demand for the 1980s," Yamani said.
There was also a political factor in Saudi reluctance to increase oil production earlier this year, according to some administration officials and Arabists.
Riyadh has continued to rebuff U.S. requests for increased output because of dissatisfaction over the Egyptian-israeli peace pact, they say. Without a shift in the U.S. policy that encouraged that settlement, the Saudi will be less likely to meet the needs of the oil-consuming countries.