It should be a recipe for a tense, important OPEC meeting: High oil prices, civil war in a key exporting nation, civil unrest across the region, a faltering economy in the giant U.S. market, and Saudi troops helping to suppress protests in Bahrain.
Two different delegates — one representing the regime of Moammar Gaddafi and one representing the Benghazi-based rebel coalition — could show up and claim to represent Libya. The previous Libyan delegate, state oil company head Shukri Ghanem, defected last month.
But while the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting on Wednesday could produce political sparks, oil experts expect little change in the cartel’s output policies and thus little near-term change in the price of crude oil that has been such a drag on economic growth in Europe and the United States.
The price of crude oil in New York fell 1.2 percent to $99.01 a barrel. In London, the price of the more widely used benchmark, Brent crude oil, dropped 1.3 percent to $114.48 a barrel.
Most OPEC members are producing as much oil as they can, in many cases exceeding official quotas. To compensate for the loss of Libya’s oil exports, Saudi Arabia, the only country able to sharply boost production, has slightly increased its output to just over 9 million barrels a day, leaving it with about 3 million barrels a day of spare capacity.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of theatrics, but beyond that I don’t think it affects the outcome,” said Frank Verrastro, director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If OPEC becomes less cohesive, that means each country goes its own way on production.”
“All these countries need money,” said Fadel Gheit, oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. “They will produce as much as they can get away with without destroying demand.”
“Demand destruction” is the phrase the oil industry uses to describe what happens when high prices push consumers into changing their habits and using less petroleum.
As gasoline prices have hovered around the $4-a-gallon level in the United States, motorists have curtailed their driving habits, using slightly less than last year. With a drop in diesel used by trucks and a drop in jet fuel use, total U.S. consumption over the past four weeks fell 5 percent short of the same period last year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
The International Energy Agency trimmed its forecast in May. But even with high prices and sluggish economies in Europe and the United States, the agency is still expecting global demand to climb to 89.2 million barrels a day, up 1.5 percent from 87.9 million barrels a day in 2010.
“Even before the uprisings in Egypt and Libya, oil prices were rising anyway,” said Verrastro. “That was driven by demand.”
The Eurasia Group warned last week that the peak demand season is just beginning, and that “an increase by the Saudis and possibly other Gulf Arab producers with spare capacity would be necessary to head off a precipitous decline in inventories” during the third quarter.
The major investment banks, led by Goldman Sachs, are calling for oil prices of $100 a barrel or more for the next year or two.
OPEC members usually fall into two broad camps on oil prices. Some of the most populous nations, such as Venezuela and Iran, take a hardline position, favoring lower oil output and high prices. Saudi Arabia and some others, such as the United Arab Emirates, generally want to avoid prices that are so high that they stymie the global economy and drive consumers toward greater efficiency or other fuels.
The high level of prices could help keep the price hawks from complaining too much.
Meanwhile, Gheit says, recent uprisings across the region might have moderated the Saudi position. In the wake of the Egyptian demonstrations, Saudi King Abdullah pledged nearly $40 billion in extra spending to head off popular grievances. He has also pledged aid to Egypt.
“At the end of the day, the unrest is likely to keep oil prices up not only because of oil speculation but because all these countries need more oil revenues to pay off their friends and enemies in their own countries,” Gheit said.
“I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes now,” he added. “They have no friends outside their own countries and not that many friends within their own countries.”
The Eurasia Group noted that Saudi officials have been quoted as “emphasizing the ‘sovereign’ nature of Saudi production decisions, which seems to anticipate a need to act in the absence of a headline increase from OPEC.”
“The concern on the producers’ side is that the credit crisis, European economies and the U.S. economy mean demand destruction,” Verrastro said. “And on the consumer side, the concern is that if growth in second half continues to be strong . . . then there’s not a lot of new production coming on except if the Saudis are going at full bore.”