Saudi Arabia said today that it is increasing the price of its benchmark crude oil by an undisclosed amount following the opening day of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' semiannual, price-setting meeting.
Speculation was that Saudi Arabia had agreed to raise the price of its oil by $2, to $32 a barrel, while the ceiling for other premium crudes might be raised $3, to $40.
[Japan's International Trade and Industry Ministry said Tuesday that Saudi Arabia has notified Japanese oil refineries that it is increasing the price of its Arabian light crude by $2.]
After two sessions at the Indonesian state oil company's holiday camp on this steamy and rainy tropical island, Saudi Oil Ministry Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, one of OPEC's chief power brokers, told journalists that a "loose agreement" on prices had been reached.
"There is a broad agreement, yes," Yamani said tonight as he emerged from a Balinese dance performance put on for the oil potentates by the Indonesians after their dinner. "We have increased our prices."
Industry sources said the Saudi price hike would probably raise the cost of a gallon of gasoline on the U.S. market by around one cent.
The meeting got under way as two of the organization's largest producers, Iran and Iraq, continued their three-month-long war in the Persian Gulf. OPEC members refused to take up the war issue, as sought by Iran, but its effects were felt at the opening meeting anyway as the Iranians pressed for the release of their oil minister, who had been captured early in the war by the Iraqis.
Yamani refused to elaborate on what the final price increases would be -- whether they would remain around the 5 percent level he had privately indicated he could live with before the conference or go up to the 10 percent to 15 percent advocated by such price hawks as Libya and Algeria. He did not say either when the new prices might go into effect or indicate how long they would remain at the new levels.
Nor did he say whether Saudi Arabia planned to cut back on its current high level of production, running around 10 million barrels a day following its latest increase to offset partially the loss of oil imports from warring Iran and Iraq. Saudi production presently accounts for 40 percent of OPEC's total.
United States oil imports have dropped to an average of about 6 million barrels a day from 8 million a year ago, according to a U.S. Department of Energy report. Imports from Saudi Arabia averaged 1.3 million barrels a day the first eight months of this year, meaning the cost of Saudi oil would jump by $2.6 million a day.
With all political questions officially swept under the rug, including the continued imprisonment by Iraq of Iran's oil minister, representatives of the 13-nation cartel sought a quick, and moderate, pricing accord that would speed the meeting to a hasty conclusion before any political issues could raise their heads to poison the climate.
The agreement, which still remains to be completed in further sessions Tuesday, hardly represented any real unity or unanimity among the world's leading oil exporters.
Sources close to the conference said that in effect it was little more than "an agreement to disagree," similar in every way to the confused compromise reached a year ago at OPEC's meeting in Caracas, Venezuela, when OPEC's efforts to establish a unified pricing accord collapsed in bitter acrimony.
The Venezuelan meeting only established a generally agreed to -- though not always honored -- spectrum for pricing which until today ranged from a low base price of $30 for a barrel of Saudi light crude to a high of $37 for premium Libyan and Algerian oil.
Conference sources said that the general "agreement" mentioned by Yamani tonight only meant that the same formula that was reached in Caracas would probably be continued, with the base and ceiling prices raised and the spread between them slightly increased.
The discussions on pricing, however, failed to still the political rumblings in the conference hall caused by the war between Iraq and Iran, once OPEC's second and third biggest producers.
The war, which has resulted in great destruction to both nation's oil installations, has hung like an ominous shadow over OPEC ever since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent his armies into Iran's neighboring Khuzestan Province, the site of most of Iran's once considerable oil production.
Ignoring a cease-fire appeal from the OPEC conference, Iran and Iraq today carried out artillery, ground and helicopter gunship attacks around Abadan, Ahvaz, Dezful and Susangerd in Khuzestan, news agencies reported from Beirut. War communiques also reported hand-to-hand combat between Iranian and Iraqi paratroopers in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in western Iran.
Until today's conference, the war had forced OPEC to cancel all of its previously scheduled meetings -- including a summit that was to have been held in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in November to commemorate the 20th anniversary of OPEC's founding in that city 20 years ago.
The climate was further poisoned when an Iraqi Army patrol, operating behind Iran's besieged oil refinery complex at Abadan, captured Iran's recently appointed oil minister, Mohammed Javad Tondguyan, who had tried to go to the city to assess the damage caused to its oil facilities after almost two months of continuous Iraqi air strikes and artillery shellings.
The Iraqis have refused every suggestion, from friends and fellow OPEC members alike, to release Tondguyan, a 30-year-old engineer elevated to his job one week after the war began. He is, they repeat, a prisoner of war like any other captured combatant and will not be released until the war ends.
Until OPEC's oil barons began arriving here, there were hopes that the Iraqi delegation might surprise the conference by bringing Tondguyan with it as a gesture of unity.
The Iraqis didn't. Furthermore, in the preconference meeting Sunday, there were heated exchanges between Iraqi Oil Minister Tayeh Abdul Karim and Iran's Hassan Sadat, Tondguyan's deputy who is heading Tehran's delegation here.
The Iranian demands that the issue of their minister be put on the agenda were finally overruled on the grounds that OPEC statutes do not allow for discussion of their members' political problems.
Never ones to accept the rulings of others, the Iranians got in the last word on the issue when Indonesian President Suharto delivered the session's opening speech this morning. Though out of diplomatic delicacy the Indonesian delegation was seated between those of Iran and Iraq, which normally would have sat side-by-side, the Iranians had placed a life-sized photograph of Tondguyan in the seat of the chief Iranian delegate.
President Suharto himself made one last plea for Iran and Iraq's reconciliation for the good of OPEC as he opened the conference.
"I would like to make an honest appeal here from Bali from our beloved brothers who are now in dispute . . . to seek the best conceivable solution to their conflict as soon as possible," he said.