For the second time in three months the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) failed to come to terms with demands from member countries for a greater share of the world's stagnant oil market.
The failure underscored the internal divisions and conflicting needs of the 13 members of the cartel that have served to virtually paralyze its policy-making.
After meeting more than four hours today in an extraordinary session called to deal with growing demands for increased production quotas, OPEC ministers were unable to break the deadlock that had frustrated a previous meeting on the same issue in July. As a result, they again deferred a decision until the next regular meeting in December.
Today's failure to come to grips with the issue, which is crucial for some of its more financially strapped members, triggered threats from Ecuador, one of OPEC's smallest producers, to quit the organization. If Ecuador leaves, it would be the first resignation in OPEC's 25-year history.
Only hours before today's conference agreed to disagree once again, Fernando Santos Alvite, Ecuador's deputy minister of energy, told newsmen: "We will reconsider our membership in OPEC if they don't sanctify our request for an increase in quota."
Shortly after Santos Alvite decided to boycott the evening session here, the conference president, Indonesian Mines and Energy Minister Subroto, said that the decision on any quota changes had been "postponed" until the next OPEC meeting, scheduled for Geneva Dec. 6.
Senior members of several Middle Eastern delegations shrugged off Ecuador's threats as "unimportant" and probably a bluff.
"Why would they want to pull out of OPEC?" asked one deputy oil minister from an Arab country. "They can stay in OPEC and produce what they want to produce at whatever prices they want to set and no one will do anything about it. They have been doing that already, so what is the difference?"
Ecuador and Iraq opened the debate over changing oil production quotas in July. Their demands for increases got nowhere because the world oil market was sluggish opposed a bigger quota for Iraq, its foe in the 5-year-old Persian Gulf war. Nonetheless, both Iraq and Ecuador increased their oil output.
When today's conference convened, according to Indonesia's Subroto, not only Iraq and Ecuador formally asked for higher production quotas, but so did four other nations -- Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Gabon and Iran.
In a meeting this afternoon with journalists, Subroto explained that any increase in quotas would either involve raising OPEC's overall production ceiling of 16 million barrels a day at a time when world demand was actually less than that, or risk flooding the market with oil and triggering a dangerous price war.
The only other option, he said, would have been for some nations to give up part of their quotas to accommodate those who insisted theirs should be raised. This would at least keep OPEC's ceiling intact. Subroto said this alternative was also a nonstarter because many OPEC members, including pacesetter Saudi Arabia, were not prepared to see their quotas lowered.
Saudi Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani said his country was producing 3 million barrels a day, still well below its quota. Yamani also confirmed that some Saudi oil was being offered at discount prices.