Regional

With or without Iran, oil producers to discuss output in April

A freeze in oil output would at least stop adding to the excess supply that has caused prices to collapse.

LONDON: Oil producers including Gulf OPEC members back holding talks next month on a deal to freeze output even if Iran declines to participate, OPEC sources said, as political pressure to prop up prices increases. OPEC and non-OPEC producers will meet in Doha on April 17, Qatari Energy Minister Mohammad bin Saleh al-Sada said, following a February agreement between Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Venezuela and non-OPEC Russia to stabilize output.

“To date, around 15 OPEC and non-OPEC producers, accounting for about 73 percent of global oil output, are supporting this initiative,” Sada said in a statement. Qatar holds the OPEC presidency in 2016 and has been organizing the effort.

Oil prices rose on Wednesday, supported by the announcement and on growing signs of a decline in U.S. crude production.

Brent crude was trading near $40 a barrel, up from a 12-year low of $27.10 reached in January.

The reluctance of Iran, which is boosting its oil exports to recover market share after the lifting of Western sanctions in January, to join such an accord has been cited by OPEC sources as a potential roadblock to a wider agreement.

But Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak Monday said after talks in Tehran that a deal could be signed in April and exclude Iran. An exemption for Iran is not a deal breaker, OPEC sources said.

“It’s a setback but it will not necessarily change the positive atmosphere that has already started,” said one OPEC source from a major producer, referring to Iran saying it will not join any freeze accord.

Novak was due to call Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi Wednesday to brief him on his trip to Tehran, two sources said.

A freeze in output would at least stop adding to the excess supply that has caused prices to collapse from levels above $100 a barrel seen in 2014.

OPEC delegates have said that further action including a supply cut could follow by the end of the year, depending on Russia’s commitment to the freeze and how much oil Iran adds to the market.

A second delegate from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said a pact that failed to include Iran was not the worst possible outcome.

However, “if the others freeze and the Iranians are outside the agreement, it will not help the market unless the demand is very large”, this delegate said. “January output is already at high levels.”

Other OPEC sources said it would be hard to backtrack from the deal, so as not to jeopardize a rally in oil prices from January’s low.

“You can’t ignore all other oil producers. The meeting is likely to go ahead,” a third source said, adding that the April talks would likely discuss and finalize details of the deal.

“We will not just meet for the sake of meeting.”

It was unclear whether all 13 OPEC members and which outside producers would attend. Kuwait and the UAE have said they would commit to the freeze if other major producers also participated.

The willingness of Iraq, the biggest source of OPEC supply growth in 2015, to join the deal is also important. Baghdad on Monday said the freeze initiative was acceptable, citing the hardship for producers caused by low prices.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2016, on page 5.

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