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OPEC president: cartel reaches consensus not to boost oil output


VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ Arguing that the world has ample supplies of oil, OPEC representatives have reached a consensus not to boost crude production, the group's president said Tuesday.

Delegates from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries were to meet later in the day to assess conditions in energy markets and adopt a formal position on output. OPEC pumps about 40 percent of the world's oil, with an official production of 24.2 million barrels a day.

Although OPEC was widely expected to keep its output steady, an unexpected twist in U.N. diplomacy toward Iraq sent oil prices plunging Monday and appeared to snuff out any possibility of an increase.

OPEC President Chakib Khelil told reporters in the Austrian capital that the group's 11 members agreed there should be ``no increase in production.''

Khelil, who also is Algeria's oil minister, was hosting an informal session of his OPEC counterparts later in the day. The group was to meet formally in the evening to ratify its stance on production.

Talk among the delegates has even turned to the possibility of a cut in production now that Iraq has indicated a willingness to consider resuming the 2.1 million barrels of daily oil exports it halted last month.

Facing the threat of a Russian veto, Britain on Monday indefinitely postponed a vote on its plan to revamp sanctions on Iraq, introducing instead a new resolution to extend the existing U.N. oil-for-food program for Iraq for five months. The council was expected to vote on the measure later Tuesday.

Iran's oil minister, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh, played down the potential impact of a resumption in Iraqi exports.

``In the third quarter, we think we are very close to a balance between supply and demand, and I don't think we will have any considerable problem in the market,'' he told reporters as he arrived at a Vienna hotel. Iran is OPEC's No. 2 producer after Saudi Arabia.

Zangeneh insisted that markets would still be in balance if Iraq began to export crude again, and he said he saw no need for a cut in output at this point.

If prices were to weaken, he noted that OPEC has a plan to curtail its total production by 500,000 barrels a day if the average price of OPEC's benchmark crudes slips below $22 a barrel for 10 consecutive trading days.

Conversely, OPEC has said it would boost output by half a million barrels a day if its benchmark or ``basket'' price exceeded $28 for 20 consecutive business days.

OPEC has targeted a basket price of $25 a barrel. On Monday, the basket price averaged $24.50.

Oil prices tumbled on news of Iraq's expected return to the market. August contracts of North Sea Brent crude dropped 91 cents a barrel Monday on the International Petroleum Exchange in London, before rebounding somewhat to close 44 cents lower at $25.64. Light, sweet crude for August delivery fell by as much as 75 cents a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, closing down 30 cents at $25.95.

OPEC's decision to meet Tuesday, just one month after its last ministerial session, arose from its concern about Iraq's suspension of oil exports June 4.

Iraq halted its shipments in protest against a U.S.-British proposal to replace the existing U.N. trade sanctions against it with so-called ``smart sanctions'' that would tighten constraints on Iraqi imports deemed to have a military use.

Britain's diplomatic shift caused a change in the tone of discussions among OPEC representatives ahead of their meeting, with some asking whether the expected resumption of Iraqi exports might not justify a reduction in output by other OPEC members.

Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali Naimi seemed to rule out any change, up or down.

``Basically the market is in balance. Inventories have been steadily rising, and the price is within our band, albeit at the lower end of the band,'' he said Monday, referring to OPEC's targeted price range.

As OPEC's largest producer, Saudi Arabia has an especially powerful influence on the group's production policy.
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