The Perfect Storm: OPEC and the World Oil Market

By Kohl, Wilfrid L. | Harvard International Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Perfect Storm: OPEC and the World Oil Market


Kohl, Wilfrid L., Harvard International Review


Oil continues to be the world's most important fuel, contributing 39 percent of the global energy supply. It will remain the leading fuel in the near future, driven primarily by demand from the rapidly growing transportation sector. Crude oil prices have been especially volatile recently, reaching almost US$50 per barrel in August 2004. Why have oil prices risen so significantly, and what is the role of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the oil market?

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OPEC is an organization of oil-producing governments that cooperate to manage oil supply and prices in order to maximize the revenues of the member states and promote stability in the oil market. The ten producer governments who make up OPEC (OPEC-10), most of them in the Middle East, have economies that are highly dependent on oil revenues, all of whom ostensibly accept production quotas. Iraq, the eleventh member, currently has no quota because it is trying to restore its former oil production after the Iraq war in 2003. OPEC acts like a cartel as it pursues its economic and political objectives.

Although OPEC has about 75 percent of the world's oil reserves, it currently comprises only about 35 percent of world oil production, much less than the 60 to 65 percent it controlled at the time of the oil shocks in the 1970s. Non-OPEC producers are thus important, led by Russia, whose production is expanding, and the United States, whose production is declining. While OPEC has had some success at managing the world oil market in recent years, it has also made mistakes. At times, it is confronted by challenges beyond its control, as in 2004.

The Oil Price Band

At its disastrous meeting in Jakarta at the end of November 1997, OPEC increased oil production despite the economic crisis in Asian economies, which led to falling demand in 1998 and a price collapse to US$10 per barrel. The price collapse caused severe damage to the economies of producer countries. The cartel was able to regroup and cut production in March 1999 with the assistance of non-OPEC producers, specifically Mexico, Russia, Norway, and Oman. Oil prices recovered and increased above US$30 per barrel by early 2000, driven partly by Asian recovery and low Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) oil stocks. OPEC overshot its target of restoring prices to the low- to mid-US$20 range.

In 2000, OPEC increased output four times to try to reduce the high oil prices that threatened to diminish oil demand. At its Vienna meeting in March of that year, OPEC reversed its 1999 decision and increased production, assisted again by the cooperation of several non-OPEC producers. It also announced a price band mechanism designed to keep oil prices in a target range of US$22 to US$28 per barrel for the OPEC basket of crudes.

The OPEC basket is a weighted average of Saudi light and six other OPEC crude oils. It includes an automatic production adjustment mechanism that is implemented if the price goes above or below the band, though the mechanism has not always been implemented. Other production increases followed in June, September, and October 2000, but oil prices remained stubbornly high, finally dropping at the year's end.

The record of the OPEC basket price is a good indicator of OPEC's success or failure at managing the world oil market. Oil prices have been within the band only about half of the time and rose well above the band in 2004. The OPEC basket price tends to run about US$2 below the US benchmark oil price for West Texas Intermediate crude (WTI), which is the price quoted on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

In 2001, OPEC faced an economic recession in the United States that gradually spread elsewhere in the world and reduced oil demand. Following several OPEC production cuts, the OPEC basket price initially remained in the mid-US$20 range (within the price band). …

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