OPEC sits tight before oil output meeting

OPEC maintained Tuesday its oil demand growth forecasts ahead of a meeting to discuss output levels and pick a new secretary-general for the cartel that pumps out more than a third of the world's crude.

While the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was expected to hold its oil production ceiling at 30 million barrels per day (mbpd) in Vienna on Wednesday, there was uncertainty over who would become the group's new administrative head.

The world's biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia was battling against Iraq and political foe Iran to succeed Libya's Abdullah El-Badri, who as OPEC secretary general for the past six years has steered the cartel through the financial crisis.

A vote to pick his successor was postponed in June after OPEC failed to reach the required unanimous decision. Another delay could see El-Badri stay on beyond the maximum of two, three-year terms, analysts said.

The oil ministers of Kuwait and Venezuela were not attending Wednesday's meeting because of political events in their countries, while it was not known if the absences would affect the outcome of the secretary-general vote.

Asked if OPEC would decide on a new secretary-general at the ministerial meeting in Vienna, home to the cartel's headquarters, Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi simply told reporters: "Maybe."

UAE Energy Minister Mohammad bin Dhaen al-Hamli added: "I hope we will solve this issue tomorrow."

Hamli meanwhile insisted that there was "no need to do anything" over OPEC's current oil production levels. Iran's Oil Minister Rostam Qasemi added to the expectation of there being no change, stating that crude supply and demand was "relatively balanced" and that "prices are okay."

OPEC is said by analysts to be producing about one million oil barrels above its official daily ceiling, as Saudi Arabia compensates for lost Iranian output caused by a Western embargo on the Islamic Republic, and as other nations look to maximise profits while oil prices remain high.

World oil prices rose Tuesday on expectations of fresh stimulus measures from the Federal Reserve to perk up the struggling US economy, traders said, with benchmark Brent North Sea crude adding 70 cents to $108.07 a barrel.

An expected drop in oil demand next year risks dampening crude prices despite a background of Middle Eastern unrest, notably over Iran's disputed nuclear programme.

OPEC on Tuesday kept its forecast for growth in world oil demand unchanged for this year and next. World oil demand was expected to reach 88.80 mbpd in 2012, up from 88.04 mbpd in 2011, the dozen-member cartel said in its monthly report.

Next year, global demand was set to grow to 89.57 mbpd, it forecast.

OPEC, which pumps 35 percent of the world's oil, said much of its demand growth this year came from Japan, which has turned to oil after shutting down nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Massive power outages in India in the summer also helped growth there, even as members of the OECD club of industrialised nations and China saw weak economic growth that pushed down oil demand.

For 2013, OPEC was more optimistic, citing an improving economy in the United States and a potential return to growth in the eurozone, "although this might prove challenging."

As for oil production, Iran -- OPEC's second largest producer last year after Saudi Arabia -- appeared to be feeling the impact of international economic sanctions imposed over its suspected nuclear weapons drive.

In the third quarter of 2012, after an EU oil embargo took effect on July 1, Iranian crude production sank to 2.73 mbpd, from 3.09 mbpd in the second quarter and 3.39 mbpd in the first, OPEC said citing secondary sources.

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