Kuwaiti Oil Minister Sheik Ali Khalifa said today that the world's major oil exporters would not allow themselves to be drawn into a price war by Britain's decision to cut the price of its North Sea crude.
British Energy Secretary Nigel Lawson said Thursday in London that the state-owned British National Oil Corp. will cut the price for its North Sea crude oil Friday but declined to reveal the amount of the cut, The Associated Press reported. Industry sources said the cut was expected to be in the $2 to $4 range.
"I don't think any other substantial OPEC member would allow itself to be drawn into a price war," he said in an interview.
Khalifa said the Arab producers of the Persian Gulf had no plans "for the time being" to decree their own unilateral cut in the official $34 a barrel Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries price, but he did not rule out the possibility that the basic price structure "may change a little" due to the current glut on the world market.
"Seriously, I doubt the prices will tumble to $25 or whatever," he said. "They could on the spot market, but I think by the end of this year you will see a substantially changed picture . . . toward whatever new level, if there is a new level, whatever the benchmark official OPEC price is."
He also ruled out another OPEC meeting in the near future, as Iran and Libya are now demanding, to try again to reach agreement among the world's major exporters on a strategy for defending the OPEC benchmark price.
"We hope to settle our problems within OPEC," he said, but added, "We do not feel a meeting should be held unless we have prepared the work for it, so that there will not be a repetition of the last two meetings."
He was referring in particular to the dramatic breakdown of the last OPEC emergency session in Geneva Jan. 23-24, which ended in acrimonious disarray after its members failed to agree on production quotas or price differentials for various qualities of oil.
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were pressing other OPEC members, particularly Iran and Libya, to stop selling their oil at discount prices below the official OPEC level.
Khalifa said he hoped these countries' thinking about the problem "departs from the ideological into the economical." He said he already saw "a qualitative change" in their position since the failed Geneva meeting.
"It is still not articulated publicly, but I think in their minds there is an increasing realization of the futility of what they are doing," he said.
Khalifa's reasoning was in the same vein as that expressed last week by Saudi Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who warned that a price cut is "inevitable" if OPEC cannot reach an agreement, but stressed that the adjustment could be managed to prevent a downward spiral.
Khalifa made clear Kuwait's continuing commitment to a policy of brinkmanship, backed by Saudi Arabia, within OPEC. He repeatedly hinted at the possibility of a unilateral price cut if Iran and Libya did not agree to stop discounting their oil.
"We will continue to respect OPEC decisions" regarding prices, he said, but "if they do not change . . . then, of course, it frees us to do whatever we want to protect our interests.
"Morally, we feel free to do what we want for the last six months because we were among the four or five countries that have been following OPEC prices to the letter," Khalifa said. "But we don't jump to decisions. We would still wait to see and hope that the others would come and see the futility of what they are doing."
The Kuwaiti oil minister argued that OPEC, if its members agreed on quotas and prices, still could defend the $34 benchmark price even in the current glutted market and in face of price cuts by non-OPEC members such as Britain.
"I think really--if OPEC decides that it is in its long-term interest to defend the price of $34, even with the North Sea oil at a reduced price and even with the non-OPEC countries at a reduced price--OPEC would have no difficulty in doing that," he remarked.
The problem, he added, was the distribution among OPEC members of the proposed 17.5 million barrel limit on daily production for the organization. Quotas would not work as long as some members refused to accept price differentials for their better-quality oil, since they would sell more than their allotted share while the others would sell less, he said.
"If within OPEC quotas are coupled with correct differentials and discontinuation of discounts, then there would not be a problem in distributing what remains among OPEC countries and therefore defending the price of $34," he said.
He lashed out at the OPEC members that had blamed the failure of the Geneva meeting on Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iran and Libya had cited Saudi and Kuwaiti insistence on an agreement over price differentials as well as individual production quotas.
He said it was the "height of demagoguery" for OPEC members that had not been following the organization's decisions "in letter or spirit" to criticize Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which he said had respected OPEC prices "to the letter" and shouldered the major burden of production cuts to defend the $34 benchmark price.
The four Arab Persian Gulf members of OPEC--Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar--presently produce together around 6.5 million barrels daily, compared with a peak of 17 million in 1979.
The Kuwaiti oil minister said he did not consider the conflict among OPEC members over production levels and prices as "essentially political," although he did say it had a "political element" because some members, like Iran, were trying to justify their policies to home audiences.
Iranian Oil Minister Mohammed Gharazi said following the last OPEC meeting in Geneva that Iran was overproducing, partly to undermine Saudi domination of the organization. It has raised its level from 1.3 million barrels daily to 3.2 million, although Gharazi earlier this week said Iran would cut back to 2.5 million if Saudi Arabia agreed to a 4.5 million daily production level.
Kuwait has been exporting 600,000 barrels daily, only half its OPEC quota. It has been having difficulties finding outlets for its oil in the face of competition from Iran, among other producers. Khalifa predicted that the present glut in the world oil market would disappear by the end of this year and that OPEC would again regain its strength as a price-setting organization.
He said the present glut was partly due to heavy drawdowns by oil companies of their inventories, now amounting to an estimated 5 million barrels a day, which he expected to end soon.