- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

VIENNA — OPEC oil ministers said Sunday that they will stick to present output levels but seek to end overproduction by some members.

The decision means there will be no cutbacks from production levels established in December. It also translates into pressure on members of the 12-nation producer group who are exporting more oil than their quotas call for.

The 11 members under production quotas are overshooting their joint daily target level of just under 25 million barrels by about 800,000 barrels a day.

Russia announced earlier that it was cutting oil exports — welcome news for OPEC oil ministers looking for ways to bolster prices by reducing supply without further hurting the global economy.

Slashing production could raise prices in the short term but it could also lead to further depressing demand, as struggling economies cut back on expensive crude they cannot afford. Pushing for full quota compliance instead would be less harmful.

Cuts agreed on since September were meant to take a daily 4.2 million barrels off the market.

Prices have rallied from below $35 a barrel last month, with a barrel of benchmark crude fetching over $46 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange Friday. Earlier in the session, prices peaked at $48.14.

Russia is the world’s second largest producer of crude — after OPEC powerhouse Saudi Arabia — and OPEC has repeatedly called in recent months on the Russians to cooperate as it seeks to bolster prices that fell to the low $30s a barrel after summer highs close to $150.

Russia will “be cutting oil exports while increasing domestic consumption and expanding oil refining, said Russian Deputy Premier Igor Sechin, adding that his country also would delay the development of two oil fields in the northwest.

And he told the OPEC meeting that Russian oil production had already decreased by 1.9 percent in the first two months of the year.

The cuts appeared to be a way of dressing up Moscow’s inability to keep up present output levels because of lagging investment that is expected to result in an output decline of around 2 percent this year. At its peak in early 2008, Russia was producing 9.5 million barrels of crude a day.

Sechin also said that sending a permanent Russian observer to OPEC was under discussion. Moscow first floated that idea late last year.

Any sign of closer cooperation between Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries is closely watched because of the potential it has on influencing the amount of supply available and its price. Sechin’s comments appeared to be mostly symbolic, indicating Russia was in no hurry to give up its energy independence.

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