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The Times: Opec ponders wealth of alternatives

Members may be split over the cartel’s objectives but they are united against a US legal threat

November 17, 2007
Robin Pagnamenta in Riyadh

Stuck in traffic, behind rows of blinking tail-lights as smoked-glassed Chevrolets sweep down the dual carriageways around you, it would be easy to mistake this sprawling desert city, humming with oil wealth, for somewhere altogether different.

But it is here, amid the palms and neon-lit malls, that Opec heads of state are gathering, for only the third time in the organisation’s 47-year history, to ponder not only high oil prices, but also the purpose of the organisation – and whether it has a role beyond trying to massage prices by controlling production.

In many ways, this should be a golden age for Opec. With oil prices close to $100 per barrel, surely its 12 member states, which are responsible for 40 per cent of global crude production of 85 million barrels per day, are enjoying an unprecedented boom?

Not so, according to Opec’s general secretary Abdalla Salem el-Badri.

“If you look at the low dollar, the high cost of producing oil, the high cost of investing, it’s really not a bonanza for us,” he told The Times yesterday, although he admitted that things are not too bad. “I don’t want to say it’s a golden age, but it is a fair time.”

The statistics suggest that Mr el-Badri is a master of understatement. Total oil revenues for Opec countries this year are expected to soar to $658 billion and could exceed $750 billion next year – higher even than the equivalent boost to their income that took place in 1979 when the Iran hostage crisis sent oil prices rocketing.

Opec’s wealth and influence is amplified today because increased revenues come as the big importer countries – the US and Europe in particular – are on the back foot. With their economies sputtering and many, including the UK, running out of their own oil, they rely increasingly on Opec for imports.“ The group’s share of total production is expected to grow. While the figures are the subject of fierce debate, Opec’s reserves dwarf the rest of the world’s. At the end of 2006, members had proven reserves of more than 922 billion barrels of crude oil, representing 77 per cent of the world total of 1,200 billion barrels.

This should be the perfect opportunity for Opec to refine its objectives and broaden its mission. And there are plenty of ideas floating around the chandeliered hallways of Riyadh’s Intercontinental hotel.

The Venezuelans want to use Opec as a socialist engine for redistributing oil wealth to the poor, selling oil at discounted rates to developing countries. “Opec must be an organisation that goes beyond energy, and it must have political characteristics,” Hugo Chávez, its President, said this week. His views are shared by Ecuador, which has just rejoined after being turfed out in 1992 for failing to pay its cartel fees.

The Iranians, predictably, view Opec as a political weapon to bash US policy in the Middle East. “If there were not so many sanctions for so many years against Libya and Iran, prices would be much healthier,” said Hossein Kazempour-Ardebili, Iran’s senior Opec governor.

But while Mr Chávez and his ilk may steal the limelight, such views are unlikely to gain much traction with Saudi Arabia, easily Opec’s biggest producer, and other Gulf allies of Western importer nations. Neither do they appear to have support at the highest level of the organisation itself.

“Opec is an economic institution not a political or social institution,” Mr el-Badri said. “We are not trying to influence any country by our oil or by a higher price. We are just trying to get a fair price for our member countries.”

One idea that may achieve more widespread support here is for Opec to alter its position on climate change – an issue that it has previously treated with scepticism. “We care about the environment and are ready to take part in any action that is agreed on [at the UN climate change conference next month] in Bali,” Mr el-Badri said.

Push a bit harder though, and it is unclear what real steps Opec is willing to take. “We are trying to reduce flaring and emissions and are investing heavily in our refineries to meet rigid specifications,” Mr el-Badri said.

There has been talk of a $3 billion fund to invest in carbon capture and storage technologies, but he will not say if this may be included in any final declaration tomorrow.

Opec is also keen to forge closer ties with developing powers such as China and India and seems enthusiastic about attracting new producer countries. “We are not knocking on any doors,” Mr el-Badri said. “But if any country would like to join, if they have the same criteria, they are welcome.”

Attracting Russia and Brazil, for example, would be a huge boost for Opec, although there is no sign that they will do so soon.

Internal bickering and a lack of common interests – as well as a defensive attitude towards the rest of the world – continue to hamper Opec. After all, what do countries as diverse as Angola, Qatar and Ecuador really share, apart from a desire for stable, moderately high oil prices? It is not an easy question to answer but, given that officials have already indicated that Opec is unlikely to boost output in the immediate future, it is one occupying many minds here this weekend.

US legislators face wrath of the cartel

The Opec heads of state are expected this weekend to warn the US against suing the cartel for price-fixing.0

A draft communiqué circulating last night appeared to include a threat to US legislators who want to use a change in American law to take action against the group.

The document said: “We reiterate that measures or legislation undermining the spirit of producer-consumer cooperation would jeopardise market stability and energy security.” It added that consuming countries should adopt “transparent, nondiscriminatory and predictable trade, fiscal, environmental and energy policies; and promote free access to markets and financial resources”.

The draft communiqué is expected to be approved by leaders including Venezuela’s President Chavez, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s President Ahmadinejad.

The US House of Representatives voted in May to approve legislation that would strip Opec member states of sovereign immunity they enjoy from prosecution in US courts. The proposals have gathered momentum in Washington because of high oil prices, although the White House has threatened to veto them.

The communiqué also emphasises the role that carbon capture and storage technology can play in helping to tackle climate change. However, it omits any reference to increased oil production or the weak US dollar, which Iran and Venezuela had pressed for in a private session that was accidentally broadcast to journalists in another room. Officials quickly cut the broadcast, in which Saudi officials were heard arguing with their Venezuelan and Iranian counterparts over a proposal to stop pricing oil in US dollars.

A Saudi official said such a measure would risk triggering a collapse in the value of the dollar.

Securing Saudi Arabia’s oil supply

—The Saudi Government is establishing a new 35,000-strong industrial security force to bolster the oil industry’s defences. Oil facilities have been protected by a variety of different security groups, including the police, traffic police, coastguard, army and private security guards

—Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest supplier of crude oil, is spending an estimated $250 million bolstering security at its oil and gas production and processing facilities in Saudi Arabia to help to defend against possible terrorist attacks

—The company is being assisted by Control Risks Group, the British security consultancy, which has been helping to draw up plans to fortify vulnerable installations and improve perimeter security

—Saudi Aramco’s money will be spent on a range of new measures, including thermal imaging cameras and radar technology for isolated desert production sites and export terminals

—Saudi Aramco, which produces more than nine million barrels of oil per day – more than twice the amount produced by Western majors such as Shell and BP, undertook a review of security after a series of attacks by terrorists linked to al-Qaeda on oil-linked installations, including a bomb assault in February 2006 on its Abqaiq oil processing plant, in which two security guards were killed and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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