The oil producers cartel agreed today to set a theoretical base price for crude oil of $32 a barrel and an equally theoretical ceiling price $37, but Saudi Arabia, the world's leading exporter, said it would not go along for now.
It was the second time in six months that members of the oil cartel ended a meeting without agreement on returning to a unified system for pricing their oil. As after their meeting in Caracas in December, OPEC members are free to put prices wherever they wish within broad limits, with the influential Saudis sticking to a level well below the others.
The practical effort of today's decision at the end of a two day conference depends on how each of the 13 member-states of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries applies it, but it seems to point to a price rise of about $2 a barrel for about half of the 29 million barrel for about half of the 29 million barrels a day the OPEC has been producing.
While this would represent a price rise of roughly 3 percent for the noncommunist world as a whole, it should be translated into a rise of only about a penny a gallon for Americans since the United States imports less than half of its oil.
The OPEC decision leaves as great a spread in price as before seems to amount to an agreement to continue to disagree.
"I have agreed to nothing . . . I will not raise my price," said Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani.
United Arab Emirates Oil Minister Mana Said Otaiba was quoted as saying. "There is not agreement. I am not raising my price until the end of the year at the earliest."
Despite the basic outcome reported by the ministers, the conference's final communique was delayed well into the night. Al Algerian spokesman said the ministers were still in discussion about "amendments to the final resolutions." He did not specify what the problems were.
Reestablishment of a uniform price had been a major goal of this meeting, although realists within OPEC had little expectation that it could be done. Another goal was a cut in production by OPEC members, especially Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis also blocked agreement on this.
Under the price formula, no one would be called on to lower prices. Iraq, Venezuela and Indonesia are expected to raise their crude prices from a general level of about $30 a barrel to $32.
The margin of $5 between the floor and ceiling prices is intended to accommodate the wide variety of price differentials for quality of crude, but it leaves untouched such special charges as the $3 a barrel that Algeria charges to finance future oil prospecting. Algeria, with a present price of $38.21, could charge as much as $40 under the formula.
Qatar announced an immediate price rise of $2.
The Iraqi and Libyan oil ministers said in separate interviews that Saudi Arabia had made no commitment to raise its present price of $28 a barrel, but the ministers expressed confidence that the Saudis would go along with the new $32 floor price in gradual steps between now and the next OPEC ministerial meeting in September.
Saudi officials said they had agreed neither to raise their price nor to lower their production from the present 9.5 million barrels a day. The OPEC countries also accepted in principle a report of the organization's economic committee that total production should abe lowered to the 1978 average of 26.5 million barrels a day -- 2.5 million barrels less than present output.
There has been heavy pressure from the others for Saudi Arabia to cut production by a million barrels a day and Iraq by half a million from its present level of about 3.8 million barrels. The Iraqi minister also said he refused to commit himself.
Algerian Energy Minister Belkacem Nabi issued a heavy blast against "certain countries" in an interview today in the Paris daily Le Monde for making it possible for the oil-consuming countries to accumulate record stocks that amount to a transfer from OPEC oil wells to Western storage tanks. He said this represented a threat to continuation of present prices, or alternatively would allow consumers to cash in after future price rises.
OPEC estimates Western stocks at 6.4 billion barrels.
This argument reportedly produced a shouting match at a night session yesterday between the ministers of feuding Iran and Iraq.
Iranian Oil Minister Ali Akbar Moinfar conceded today that he had accused the Iraqis to trying to steal Iran's markets by raising production to make up for the sharp decline in Iranian production since the Islamic revolution.
Saudi Arabia's Yamani was spared such accusations because he did not attend last night's session. Venezuelan Oil Minister Humberto Calderon Berti said Yamani had left the conference to consult with Prince Fahd, the Saudi crown prince, who has been vacationing at his home in Marbella in southern Spain. Algiers is a short air hop from southern Spain.
Yamani was back at this morning's session and told reporters that anyone who thought Saudi Arabia would raise its price from $28 was indulging in "wishful thinking."
There was no immediate explanation for Yamanai's trip but it is assumed that he was conferring with Fahd about how far he could go in papering over the differences with the other OPEC countries.
The conference's outcome seems to indicate that Saudi Arabia confined its concessions to not standing in the way of the others to "harmonize" their prices, in the phrase of Algeria's Nabi.
Libya's Abdussaslam Mohammed Zagaar said that the establishment of a ceiling price was "a major step toward price reunification."
Iran's Moinfar declared himself "quite satisfied" with the outcome of the "united, very nice" meeting.
Iraq's Tayeh Abdul Karim expressed pleasure that his proposal for a $32 floor price was accepted.
The Qatar minister was the first to leave the conference, and was apparently so eager to avoid talking to reporters that a phalanx of bodyguards punched and kicked reporters who tried to approach him.