OPEC oil ministers appeared sharply divided after two days of talks here about how to reverse rapidly declining world oil prices.
The 13 ministers, still groping for a strategy that might win cooperation from rivals outside their cartel, decided today to form a new committee to examine the latest fluctuations in supply and demand that have afflicted the chaotic world market.
Arturo Hernandez Grisanti, the Venezuelan energy minister and chairman of the conference, said "at this stage there are no concrete proposals" to cope with the oil crisis. He said the ministers would resume their session Tuesday once they had "all technical data and recommendations in hand from the appointed experts."
Asked what purpose another committee report would serve, the Venezuelan quipped, "Maybe with more expert reports we can have better decisions."
Many delegates at this emergency meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries have started expressing growing anxiety that the raging price war, which has seen the price of oil fall by half to less than $14 a barrel in three months, should be halted soon before their countries incur severe economic damage.
Iran, Algeria and Libya have been advocating a new system of production quotas that would curtail oil output sharply, hoping that this would lead to a quick reescalation of prices.
But Saudi Arabia, backed by other Persian Gulf sheikdoms, seems determined to press ahead with the price war until non-OPEC producers see the wisdom of cooperating to share the market.
In addition, Saudi Arabia's oil minister, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, appears bent on teaching his radical challengers within the cartel "a painful and bitter lesson," as one Saudi delegate put it, about the need for strict discipline if the cartel's future price and production policies are to succeed.
The current oil surplus that has led to the latest price collapse resulted in large part from cheating by OPEC members, who surpassed their quotas or offered hidden discounts, as well as the rising output from non-OPEC producers.
As the swing producer, Saudi Arabia was forced to slash output to as low as 2 million barrels a day to compensate for the excessive pumping of oil by other members. To keep prices pegged to OPEC's marker, which in December was still as high as $28 a barrel, the Saudis were forced to endure a massive hemorrhage in financial reserves and a severe recession.
The economic downturn eventually compelled the Saudis to boost their production last year to 4.3 million barrels and abandon the defense of the OPEC marker, triggering the deep slide in oil prices during the past three months.
Washington Post staff writer Peter Behr added from Washington:
Prices for crude oil, gasoline and heating oil rose sharply in commodity trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange today, apparently boosted by a news agency report from the OPEC meeting citing indications of a shift in Saudi policy, analysts said.
Futures prices of West Texas intermediate, the most widely traded domestic crude oil, closed at $13.20 a barrel for April delivery on the Mercantile Exchange, up from $12.72 on Friday and a low of $11.49 on March 5.
The heavy buying pressure followed reports from the OPEC meeting suggesting that the Saudis would settle for a new production agreement among OPEC members, giving up their demands that non-OPEC producers Britain and Norway also agree to cut production, said Peter Beutel, an analyst with Rudolf Wolff Futures Inc.