Major oil producers meet to discuss output amid Iran tensions

OPEC members, as well as Russia and others, set to discuss how to stabilize market after reimposed US sanctions throw industry into uncertainty

Illustrative: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani dedicates the final phase of a new oil refinery in the city of Bandar Abbas, Iran, February 18, 2019. (Official website photo)
Illustrative: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani dedicates the final phase of a new oil refinery in the city of Bandar Abbas, Iran, February 18, 2019. (Official website photo)

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AFP) — Major crude producers are set to meet Sunday to discuss how to stabilize a volatile oil market amid rising US-Iran tensions in the Gulf, which threaten to disrupt supply.

Key OPEC members and other major suppliers including Russia will assess the oil market and examine compliance to production cuts agreed late last year.

But the subject of Iran, which is not present, will dominate the one-day meeting of the OPEC+ group.

It comes days after sabotage attacks against tankers in highly sensitive Gulf waters and the bombing of a Saudi pipeline by Iran-aligned Yemen rebels.

The meeting also comes as the full impact of reinstated US sanctions against Tehran kicks in, slashing the Islamic Republic’s crude exports.

Hours before the meeting in Jeddah, host Saudi Arabia said it does not seek war with Iran, but is ready to defend its interests.

The meeting is set to make recommendations ahead of a key OPEC summit in late June, to be attended by Iran.

US President Donald J. Trump signs an executive order on Iran Sanctions at Trump National Golf Club, August 6, 2018, in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

US President Donald Trump said last month Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members had agreed to his request to boost oil production in order to tamp down rising prices.

Massive drops in exports by Iran and Venezuela plus output cuts of 1.2 million barrels per day, implemented by the OPEC+ group since January, have cut supply.

But UAE Energy Minister Suheil al-Mazrouei said inventories were still building up.

He told reporters Saturday that the job of balancing the market was not yet complete, a hint that any ramp-up in production could send prices crashing as they did in late 2018.

Iran exports tumble

OPEC and the International Energy Agency (IEA) said earlier this month that global oil supply fell in April due to tightened US sanctions on Iran and OPEC+ production cuts.

The IEA said Iranian crude production fell in April to 2.6 million barrels per day (bpd), down from 3.9 million before Washington announced in May 2018 it would withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions.

Iran’s output is already at its lowest level in over five years, but could tumble in May to levels not seen since the devastating 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.

This photo from March 12, 2017, shows a an Iranian oil facility on Kharg Island, on the shore of the Persian Gulf. (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)

Energy intelligence firm Kpler sees Iranian exports plunging from 1.4 million bpd in April to around half a million barrels in May — down from 2.5 million in normal circumstances.

Venezuela’s output is also tumbling, down by over half since the third quarter of last year.

Kpler data shows OPEC+ members have kept to agreed production cuts.

But exporters fear a rush to raise production to plug the gap left by Iranian exports could backfire, triggering a new supply glut.

Gulf tensions

Sunday’s meeting comes amid soaring Gulf tensions after the mysterious sabotage of several tankers off the Emirati coast and drone attacks, claimed by Iran-aligned Yemen rebels, which shut a key Saudi crude pipeline.

Both attacks targeted routes built as alternatives to the Strait of Hormuz, the conduit for almost all Gulf exports.

Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait in case of war with the US, which said this month it was sending an aircraft carrier and strike group to the region.

Damage to the Norwegian-flagged oil tanker MT Andrea Victory off the coast of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates, May 13, 2019. (UAE National Media Council via AP)

Saudi Arabia accused Iran of ordering the pipeline attacks, targeting “the security of oil supplies… and the global economy.”

Saudi foreign affairs minister Adel al-Jubeir said Sunday his country does not want war with Iran, but was ready to defend its interests.

Riyadh “does not want a war, is not looking for it and will do everything to prevent it,” he told journalists in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia called Saturday for urgent meetings of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League to discuss escalating tensions, government news agency SPA said.

It also said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had spoken with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about enhancing security in the region.

Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said last month the kingdom was ready to boost supplies in case of any shortage due to the Iran embargo.

That is likely to infuriate Iran and raise questions over the future of OPEC, of which Iran is an influential member.

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh has said Washington’s stated aim of bringing Iran’s oil exports “to zero” was “an illusion.”

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