Oil ministers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, bickering over how to prevent widespread cheating on production quotas by member states, decided tonight to adjourn their winter session until next week so they can consult their heads of state about new initiatives to shore up sagging world oil prices.
Subroto, Indonesia's oil minister and the conference chairman, said the ministers would depart for their home capitals Friday after receiving a list of "strong measures devised to police and enforce" adherence to output shares under the cartel's self-imposed ceiling of 16 million barrels a day.
Delegates said the policing measures, which are being shaped by a five-man committee including the oil ministers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, would involve the creation of a clearing- house at OPEC's Vienna headquarters to monitor all oil transactions and keep track of OPEC production.
Any noncontract OPEC oil, it is proposed, would be resold by the OPEC clearing house in an effort to stabilize the market.
This concept, which already has provoked fierce opposition from several ministers, is intended to eliminate the numerous covert sales that account for OPEC's excess production beyond the 16 million barrel ceiling.
Oil industry analysts at the conference voiced skepticism about the idea, which they suggested had been floated to halt price cutting by trying to show that OPEC was doing something to solve its problems.
Several delegates also expressed doubt that many states would give up enough control over sales to make a success of a central agency monitoring and selling OPEC oil.
After consulting their leaders about the plan, the ministers intend to reconvene in Geneva on Dec. 27 to thrash out their differences in hopes of reaching agreement on ways to control cheating on production quotas and on OPEC's $29-a-barrel benchmark price.
Oil market analysts say that OPEC members are now pumping nearly 1 million barrels a day above their ceiling. Traders also report that several states, desperate to sell their oil, are offering hidden discounts that undercut the official price by $2 to $3 a barrel.
Several traders expressed exasperation with the ministers' failure to recognize that the market was reflecting near-unanimous industry opinion that a substantial price cut is necessary to buoy consumption.
"You would have to be a fool or a gambler to be making oil deals now," a London-based trader said. "OPEC keeps trying to muddle through their problems, but things only get worse. If they don't cut prices in a hurry they will face even worse trouble by March."
OPEC's indecisiveness appeared to contribute to further weakening in oil prices today on the free or "spot" market in Rotterdam. The price of Saudi light crude, the basis for OPEC's $29 marker price, fell another 30 cents this morning to $1.80 below the official level.
The chairman of a major U.S. oil company, who is seeking to negotiate contracts here, said that if the ministers were serious about restoring stability to the oil market, they would need to cut OPEC production back to 13 million barrels a day for the next three months.
But the cartel's 13 ministers have appeared incapable of adopting such Draconian measures. Several members insist that heavy debts and economic problems must exclude their countries from making any further sacrifices in income.
During their two days of talks, the ministers spent much time accusing each other of violating pricing and production agreements, according to delegation sources who attended the sessions.
Tamunoemi David-West, Nigeria's oil minister, was attacked by several colleagues for his country's decision to follow non-OPEC members Britain and Norway in cutting prices two months ago. Nigeria also was charged with surpassing its 1.45 million barrel production share.
David-West denied that his country was pumping as much as 1.6 million barrels a day. But even if his country were overproducing to such an extent, he challenged his peers about their own violations, saying, "Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone."
Britain and Norway have been harshly criticized this week for triggering the latest crisis by edging toward lower free market prices and taking more of OPEC's market share. But the governments in London and Oslo claim they have no influence over the major oil companies' North Sea drilling.
U.S. oil companies have been accused, meanwhile, of dumping their inventories and forcing prices down. But representatives of U.S. oil companies insisted that stocks remain high, with less than 1 million barrels a day being drawn down during the unusually warm winter now prevailing in the Northern Hemisphere.