OPEC Agrees to Boost Output

ISFAHAN, Iran -- Looking ahead to strong demand next winter, OPEC ministers on Wednesday agreed to immediately start pumping an extra 500,000 barrels of oil per day and held out prospects of a similar boost later if needed.

The move reflected OPEC concerns about the next cold season. Trying to ease worries, OPEC's president, Kuwaiti Oil Minister Sheik Ahmed Fahd Al Ahmed Al Sabah, told reporters that at full capacity -- and including Iraq, which is exempt from OPEC quotas while rebuilding -- the oil producer group could pump some 31 million bpd.

That would represent a daily increase of about 1.5 million barrels from present levels.

Markets seemed unimpressed. Crude prices rallied to new all-time highs, hitting $56.30 a barrel in the United States and $54.75 in London, Reuters reported.

Edmund Dakouru, Nigeria's presidential adviser on oil matters, said the OPEC ministers will meet again June 7, and another official said the venue would be Vienna.

Officials earlier said the output increase was effective April 1, but an OPEC statement later said it took effect "immediately."

The decision to boost output will officially raise the group's ceiling to an all-time high of 27.5 million bpd.

But with Iraq and quota-busting factored in, OPEC is already producing close to 29.5 million barrels.

OPEC officials conceded the group's decision was driven by concern of potential shortfalls come next winter, when demand for oil and refined products is traditionally high.

"The industry is very scared of the second half" of the year, said an official at the meeting, who demanded anonymity.

Dakouru said that "the extra oil will go a long way" toward meeting any concerns about winter supply.

In past years, OPEC output hikes have normally dampened prices, by sending the message that supply is available to meet demand.

This time though, the move only reflected realities -- members bound by the quota already produce about 700,000 bpd above the group's official ceiling.

"Market reaction has been almost nil," said Frederic Lasserre, head of commodities research at SG Securities in Paris. "The market is very concerned that even the Saudis might be short of spare capacity by the end of the year."

Estimates vary, but most surveys put OPEC's spare capacity at between 1 million to 1.5 million bpd. Most of it is Saudi oil, which needs more refining than the preferred sweet crude produced by some other OPEC members. Oil production by states outside OPEC is stagnating.

With Western economies generally expanding, demand soon could outstrip supply. The economic boom in China is already sucking up more than a third of the world's crude supplies. India's hunger for oil is also on the rise.

At some point -- no one has come up with a firm figure -- the market would price oil so high that economies would begin to contract and demand would fall.

"We have to face facts. The International Energy Agency has raised demand estimates to 84.3 million barrels per day and that exactly equals worldwide daily consumption," said analyst Phil Flynn in a newsletter. "We're at total equilibrium."

"OPEC has reached its production limits," Algerian Oil Minister Chakib Khelil said over the weekend. "If it came to a crunch, it has capacity for 1 million barrels."

The Energy Information Administration, the statistics arm of the U.S. Energy Department, said Tuesday that OPEC's spare capacity fell to 1 million to 1.5 million bpd in February, not enough to cover a loss of Iraqi output.

The EIA and the International Energy Agency, which monitors oil market conditions for the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, both raised their forecasts for 2005 oil demand last week, drawing the picture of a market in which consumption will continue to strain supply.

After weeks of barrels at above $50, Washington is calling on producers to take steps to lower the price. The White House complained Tuesday that rising energy costs were a drag on the U.S. economy.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the administration was telling oil producers "about the importance of acting in ways that support our growing global economy and our growing U.S. economy."

Several oil ministers at the Isfahan meeting said Tuesday that OPEC members had recently received calls from U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman and other senior American representatives.