OPEC Split as Oil Prices Fall Sharply

Oil prices sank again on Monday, giving consumers more of a break and causing a split among OPEC leaders about what action should be taken, if any, to halt the slide.

The price drop has led to a near free fall in gasoline prices in the United States. On Monday, the national average price for regular gasoline was $3.20, 9 cents lower than it was a week ago and 14 cents below the price a year ago, according to the AAA motor club.

The price at the pump generally follows oil after a few days, leading energy experts to predict lower prices for the rest of the month at least.

“This is not your garden variety autumn price decline,” said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at GasBuddy.com, which reports fuel prices from filling stations across the country. “Clearly there is a rift in OPEC, and that means we are more likely to see a price war over the next six months. Crude oil is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Mr. Kloza predicted that the national average for regular gasoline was headed to between $2.95 and $3.10 a gallon. The average household consumes 1,200 gallons of gasoline a year, translating into an annual savings of $120 for every 10-cent drop in the price of gasoline.

Most oil analysts say that the companies that have led the boom in drilling across North Dakota and Texas are insulated from the declines for the time being, with the break-even levels for investments around $60 a barrel — which is more than $20 below current levels.

With the number of rigs working in the United States at or near record levels, some oil executives are beginning to express concern about investment decisions next year.

In recent days several members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran and the United Arab Emirates — have cut prices to European and Asian buyers as competition for global market share has grown fierce.

With the price of the global benchmark, Brent crude oil, falling 1.5 percent on Monday to $88.89 a barrel, many analysts said Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s dominant member, might be rethinking its strategy.

“Saudi comments indicate that it may have shifted from a strategy of holding prices at around $100 a barrel to a focus on market share,” said Jeff A. Dietert, head of research at Simmons & Company, an independent investment bank. “That means there is not an immediate floor on oil prices.” He said he thought that Saudi Arabia was trying to slow production growth in the United States.

On the supply side, the United States shale drilling boom has been a critical factor. Domestic production has reached 8.7 million barrels a day, about a million barrels a day more than just a year ago and the highest level in nearly a quarter century. Imports from OPEC countries have been cut in half since 2008, forcing countries like Saudi Arabia and Nigeria to compete with one another in Asia, cutting their prices starting last week.

While the United States has been pushing up production month after month, so have other major producers. Saudi Arabia increased its production by 100,000 barrels a day in September, while Libyan production has increased in recent months by more than 500,000 barrels a day.

On the demand side, the thirst for oil is declining in Europe, where unemployment and industrial activity is down, and Japan, where the use of oil by utilities is being replaced by natural gas and coal. Restarting Japan’s nuclear plants next year will probably cut oil demand further, according to the United States Energy Department.

Last week the Energy Department reported that oil consumption in the industrialized countries was down 200,000 barrels a day this year compared with last year. The government expects American consumption, which increased by nearly 500,000 barrels a day in 2013, to decline by 40,000 barrels a day this year.

The decline in oil prices has not yet had a measurable impact on oil production, but energy experts say long-term exploration investment planning could be affected if the price decline is steep and lasting enough. Large companies like Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron make their investment plans years in advance, but smaller independent companies can be more sensitive to price swings.

Full article: OPEC Split as Oil Prices Fall Sharply (The New York Times)

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