Vienna: With oil prices about where OPEC wants them and a modest economic upturn in the offing, the oil cartel isn`t likely to tighten the taps when its leaders meet this week in Vienna.
Prices have been hovering near USD70 a barrel, and with returning growth expected to support demand, analysts don`t expect the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries will feel any need to cut output targets.
"Absolutely nothing," said John Hall, of John Hall Associates in London.
OPEC President Jose Botelho de Vasconcelos, who is also Angola`s oil minister, said last week that signs of recovery suggest the 12-member group won`t need to intervene. "Everything shows they will keep output unchanged," he said.
Kuwait also says it thinks oil prices are stable and there`s no need to cut production, even though stockpiles are rising. And Algeria, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have signaled they`re happy with the current output quota of just under 25 million barrels a day.
Saudi Arabia, OPEC`s No. 1 producer and most influential member, has said USD75 a barrel is a fair price for both consumers and producers — a level that would allow for continued investments in the oil sector without undermining efforts at global economic recovery.
"Unless Saudi says, `We`re going to cut by a million barrels a day,` nothing`s going to happen" at Wednesday`s meeting, Hall said.
Benchmark crude for October delivery crested USD68 a barrel Friday in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Over the past six weeks, it has fluctuated in the USD65-USD75 range amid conflicting signs of economic recovery.
OPEC meets more than a third of the world`s annual oil demand, which the International Energy Agency has put at nearly 86 million barrels a day for 2008 — about 2.5 million barrels more than for recession-ridden 2009.
The economic downturn has taken such a big bite out of demand for OPEC crude, it will take four more years just to recover to 2008 levels, the cartel predicts in its latest outlook.
Still, stockpiles abound despite recent OPEC production cuts: The US Energy Department said last month that US crude stocks rose by 200,000 barrels for the week ended Aug. 21.
"We`re swimming in this stuff," said Stephen T. Schork, president of The Schork Group in Villanova, Pa., and editor of a newsletter tracking industry trends.
Schork thinks OPEC may have to rein in output next March, but for now, oil prices "have settled into a range that the market can sustain," Schork said.
"Oil that`s USD65 to USD75 per barrel translates into gasoline prices of USD2.50-USD2.75 a gallon, and we know the consumer can handle that," he said.
Crude prices have taken a wild ride over the past year or so: They peaked at USD147 a barrel in July 2008 and plunged close to USD30 this past February before settling into their current range.
OPEC`s oil market report for August cautioned that "the market is still fundamentally weak amid ample stocks of crude and products." Prices in the short term, it said, "will depend largely on economic developments."
But experts agree that markets will rebound.
Morgan Stanley expects oil to average USD85 a barrel in 2010, and crude prices are bound to rise with demand as the northern winter home-heating season draws near.
Another perennial wild-card issue that threatens to drive up prices: hurricane season, which will run until early November and has the potential to disrupt refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
Experts say the flagging US dollar — which has nudged crude prices up in recent days — also could be a factor if it keeps weakening against the euro.
The 12 OPEC members are Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. Iraq is the only member not bound by the cartel`s production quotas.