Saudi Arabia production boost sends oil lower

Saud Arabia's Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali   Saudi Arabia’s still the boss when it comes to oil. The world’s biggest oil exporter plans to

increase production to 10 million barrels per day, the highest level in 30 years, according to a Saudi Arabian newspaper. Analysts see this as a bold step by the Saudis to reassert their dominance over OPEC after the 12-member group this week denied its request to increase production.

“They’re reminding everyone who the sheriff is in town,” independent analyst Jim Ritterbusch said.

Oil prices sank 2.6 percent Friday. Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude for July delivery lost $2.64 to settle at $99.29 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That erased most of the gains that followed OPEC’s meeting on Wednesday.

If Saudi Arabia follows through, the country will increase production 13 percent from May. This will add another 1.14 million barrels per day to the market, helping to close a shortfall in supply. OPEC says world demand will exceed supply by 1.45 million barrels per day in the third quarter. The U.S. Energy Information Administration puts the shortfall at 1.81 million barrels per day.

The last time Saudi Arabia produced that much oil was August 1981, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The Saudis have maintained that oil prices are too high, even after a recent decline. At the end of April, oil was up 25 percent for the year and U.S. gasoline prices were up 28 percent, near an average of $4 per gallon. Americans have cut back on driving to compensate, according to industry surveys. But gas is still up 21 percent since January, at $3.72, and experts warn that the economy will struggle to grow as long as consumers are paying high pump prices.

More than anything, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid another price crash like the nearly 70 percent plunge that occurred in the second half of 2008. Back then, demand fell off a cliff when oil rose to nearly $150 per barrel. This week, Saudi oil minister Ali Naimi pushed for higher production among OPEC members. But Iran and several other countries disagreed, delivering Saudi Arabia a very public rebuke.

Friday’s report in al-Hayat newspaper gave investors a glimpse at how the Saudis will respond.

“They’re going to unilaterally decide for themselves when to supply the market,” analyst Andrew Lipow said.

The quick end to Wednesday’s contentious meeting in Vienna had some proclaiming the beginning of the end for the 12-nation group. But others pointed out that most OPEC countries already are producing above their quotas.

Some fence-mending might be in order, but OPEC isn’t going away, said Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Fadel Gheit. An organization that stayed intact during the Iran-Iraq War and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait can certainly make it through this, Gheit said.

“Every time I write them off, they come back,” he said. “There’s no love lost between these guys, don’t get me wrong, but they’ll stick together.”

The refusal to produce more oil by some members may signal they’re already at full capacity. Saudi Arabia really is the only member that can crank up production by sizable amounts. Its total production is estimated to be as high as 12.5 million barrels per day.

The move by the Saudis sent other energy prices lower as well. In Nymex trading for July contracts, heating oil gave up 3.27 cents to settle at $3.1051 per gallon and gasoline futures lost 2.213 cents to settle at $3.0177 per gallon.

In London, Brent crude fell $791 to settle at $118.7857 per barrel on the ICE Futures exchange.

Natural gas bucked the trend, adding 8.39 cents to settle at $4.7576 per 1,000 cubic feet.

The average price for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline fell 1.1 cents to $3.723 per gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service. That’s down about 26 cents from the high in early May and some experts see the price dropping as low as $3.50 per gallon this month. A gallon of regular is still $1.017 per gallon higher than a year ago.