Saudi Arabia, the largest producer in the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries, today announced that it would cut its oil production by 1 million barrels a day in an effort to bolster the new pricing structure adopted by OPEC here yesterday.
The Saudi decision to drop production to 8.5 million barrels a day, effective next month, is apparently the second part of a compromise among OPEC's 13 member countries, in which the Saudis agreed to a $2 a barrel base price increase in exchange for a price freeze through 1982.
The production cut should relieve some pressure on the other 12 OPEC members, which have lost sales and were forced into price discounts this year in the face of Saudi production well above the levels Saudi Arabia needed for revenue purposes. But it will not wipe out the current glut.
Saudi Oil Minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani predicted that the current oil glut will be eliminated by the second quarter of next year.
In the meantime, revealing some of the uncertainty still behind OPEC's pricing compromise, Algeria's oil minister today attacked premiums set at yesterday's special pricing session for higher quality crude oil as incoherent and irrational. His criticisms foreshadowed further squabbling about prices expected in December when OPEC ministers meet again.
Saudi Arabia had signaled it would reduce production if OPEC unified and froze prices. The new Saudi production level marks a drop of about 1.5 million barrels a day from the summer. In September, Saudi production fell 1 million barrels a day to 9 million barrels. But industry sources say it rose again to 9.5 million barrels in October. Total OPEC production is estimated at around 20 million barrels a day.
Yamani, announcing the cutback, also told reporters that the $2 per barrel increase in the price of Saudi light crude agreed to yesterday would be retroactive to Oct. 1. The Saudi price rise to $34 per barrel came in return for decreases in marker prices to the same point by other OPEC members.
Yamani defended the OPEC price agreement and his country's own production cutback as being in the interest of consumers as well as oil producers. He was asked about the effect on U.S. public opinion of the price increase and production cutback since they come on the heels of Senate approval Wednesday of the sale of five Airborne Warning and Control System radar planes to the Saudis.
"This is exactly the dream of everybody," the Saudi minister replied. "What happened, if it is not changed by the media, if it is presented in its true picture, will make everybody in the States, in Europe, in Japan and in the Third World, very happy, as well as the OPEC producers."
Yamani said he had received a phone call from U.S. Energy Secretary James Edwards, and from several other energy ministers in the Third World and industrialized countries, "thanking and congratulating" him on the decision to unify and to freeze prices until the end of 1982.
"I think OPEC, as of today, is again as strong as it was," Yamani said. Price unification, he declared, would put OPEC "on the right track" toward a more balanced, stable oil market. He said it would save the world from further price shocks, like the dramatic round in 1979-80.
Looking back, Yamani said, that time was a sign of the organization's weakness. "As of today, we are back, a strong organization, responsible for its interests and the interest of the world as a whole," he said.
The end of the glut partly depends, he added, on the severity of the coming winter. It also will be affected, he said, by how soon the oil companies, which are now drawing on very full inventories rather than buying new oil, are ready again to replenish their storage tanks.
Some OPEC members would like to see Saudi Arabia reduce its production further, to around 7 million barrels per day, which experts estimate the Middle East kingdom could still afford. If the oil glut persists, the Saudis may indeed be prompted to trim production more in order to maintain the new OPEC price.
"I think we'll do our best to protect the present price level," Yamani replied when asked about Saudi Arabia's willingness to continue to adjust production levels.
Yesterday's pricing agreement set a new benchmark for OPEC oil at $34 per barrel. The old benchmark had been $36 for all but Saudi Arabia, which was charging $32. But a number of OPEC states had already begun to discount their prices as a result of market pressures. This explains why the move to unify prices resulted in a slight increase in the weighted average for OPEC oil.
On the surface, Yamani said it would appear the overall effect of price unification will be an increase of about 50 cents per barrel of oil. But taking other factors into account -- including price reductions by some OPEC members being made retroactive to August, reduced values in the differentials to be charged now for special types of oil, and longer credit terms which in some cases will be offered -- the organization's decision amounts effectively to about a 10-cent per barrel increase, Yamani said.
While the agreement on a single new stable benchmark was a substantial achievement for OPEC, the accompanying decision on the differentials to be allowed for higher-quality crudes was a much more uneasy compromise.
"The decision lacks coherence in setting differentials," Algerian oil minister Belkacem Nabi told reporters today. "It was irrational." He suggested that this occurred because some OPEC states had come to this week's extraordinary meeting "a little panicky."
The main problem still involves the African producers, whose oil commands the highest premiums. Libya and Algeria, both price hawks, agreed to reduce their prices from $40 per barrel to $38, a $4 add-on over the new basic marker price.
But Nigeria, the other major African producer, is more desperate to regain lost sales resulting from the oil glut. Its current depressed sales level -- 710,000 barrels per day in August compared to 2 million barrels in January -- has caused a sharp drop in oil revenues that pushed the country into a severe financial bind.
In a dramatic effort to recapture contracts, Nigeria last week slashed its premium to $2.50 above the Saudi price, severely undercutting Libya and Algeria.
As part of yesterday's compromise, Nigeria agreed to raise its premium to $3. This still appeared to give it an advantage over Libya and Algeria, whose premiums were said at first to have been "fixed" at $3.90 and $4 respectively.
But today, the oil ministers for Algeria and Libya indicated terms of agreement also allowed for them to charge as low a premium as $3 in order to stay competitive with Nigeria. At the same time, they were clearly not happy about this and indicated they would press for a higher minimum for Nigeria at the next OPEC meeting.