OPEC oil ministers met here today in an attempt to limit oil production following a year of record price falls and bitter disputes between cartel members about marketing strategy.
The Yugoslav authorities have lent the late president Tito's summer retreat to the world's leading oil exporters for their latest effort to end the free-for-all on the oil markets. But initial comments by delegates suggest that a comprehensive agreement on boosting oil prices is still a long way off.
Saudi Arabia and a majority of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries members are opposed to attempts by a radical minority comprised of Iran, Libya and Algeria to increase oil prices by drastically slashing production. Bridging the gulf in political and economic philosophy between these two groups has proved impossible so far.
Saudi oil minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who arrived on this island in the north Adriatic Sea aboard his personal yacht, told reporters that Saudi Arabia was not prepared to lower its market quota of 4.6 million barrels a day. He added, however, that he was hopeful that "another step" could be made toward a workable long-term agreement.
In a major shift of tactics late last year, Saudi Arabia indicated that it was no longer prepared to act as a swing producer within the OPEC cartel, cutting its own production in order to maintain stable prices. The strategy adopted by the world's largest oil producer since then has been to allow prices to fall in the belief that non-OPEC producers, such as the United States and Britain, would be forced to abandon the exploitation of oil wells that are no longer profitable.
According to oil industry sources, capacity amounting to 900,000 barrels of oil a day already has been wiped out as a result of the drop in oil prices from about $28 a barrel to about $12 during the past year. The number of active drilling rigs in the United States has fallen to below 900 from a peak of over 2,000 two years ago.
Although both President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remain firmly opposed to intervening in the oil market, other non-OPEC members have been more receptive to calls by OPEC for mutual cooperation. Yamani told reporters that he was "very satisfied" with talks he conducted last weekend in Venice with the oil minister of Norway's new labor government, Arne Oeien.
According to Norwegian radio, Oeien told Yamani that Norway was prepared to support a scheme to stabilize prices provided that OPEC members were able to agree on how to limit their own output. Oil industry sources said the move was significant because it contrasted with a refusal by Norway's previous conservative government, supported by Washington, to hold substantive discussions with OPEC producers.
In his farewell address as OPEC president, Venezuelan oil minister Arturo Hernandez Grisanti said that he hoped the new Norwegian position could "open the way for a concerted effort" by both OPEC and non-OPEC producers "to stabilize the market in the face of a possible price disaster." He added that OPEC alone "should not be expected to continue to make sacrifices to defend a price which is also enjoyed by all other oil producers."
In an apparent attempt to reinvigorate the leadership of the cartel, the OPEC ministers today elected the Nigerian minister for Petroleum Resources, Rilwanu Lukman, to succeed Grisanti. The Venezuelan had been widely criticized during his six-month term for disorganization and lack of initiative.
This week's biannual conference of OPEC comes against the background of a renewed production surge among oil-exporting countries. The authoritative Middle East Economic Survey has reported that OPEC's combined production now stands at 19.1 million barrels a day -- which is 2.8 million barrels above the target set by OPEC ministers at an April meeting in Geneva.
Delegates said they would regard the present meeting as a success if it led to a modest reduction in oil production to about 17.5 million barrels a day. CAPTION: Picture: Saudi Arabian oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani tells reporters that his country will not accept cuts in its oil production. ASSOCIATED PRESS