OPEC insists crude oil is plentiful

VIENNA, Austria &

Global oil markets are amply supplied with crude, key OPEC members said today, signaling that the cartel will maintain its current output targets at this week's meeting despite stubbornly high prices.

Oil and energy ministers for Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria and Venezuela told reporters on the eve of a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that the 12-nation group felt little pressure to loosen its taps.

With the summer driving season over, and demand for gasoline and diesel fuel slackening, OPEC appeared almost certain to maintain its official output quota of 25.8 million barrels a day.

"There is enough crude in the market," said Gholam Hossein Nozari, Iran's acting oil minister and the former head of the state-owned National Iranian Oil Co.

"I don't want to preempt the meeting, but I don't see any (signs) that indicate any change," said Odein Ajumogobia, Nigeria's state minister for petroleum.

But analysts said that could change quickly if prices already hovering around $76 a barrel edge much higher, or if supplies tighten with the approach of winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

Saudi Arabia, OPEC's top producer and the cartel's leading member, has not said publicly what it wants the cartel to do &

triggering speculation today that it might be hedging its bets and considering a push for a modest increase in output.

"This could be either the most uneventful OPEC meeting ever, or they may come with something up their sleeves," said analyst John Hall of London-based John Hall Associates.

"I don't think the rank-and-file OPEC members have that much influence. It's all about the Saudis," he said.

However, Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said today that as far as he knew, not a single OPEC member was pushing for a higher production quota.

Light, sweet crude for October delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange lost 90 cents to $75.80 a barrel in electronic trading by midafternoon in Europe.

October Brent crude fell 82 cents to $74.25 a barrel on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

John Kingston, global director of oil at Platts, the energy research arm of McGraw-Hill, said OPEC faced "a dilemma."

Kingston said the cartel, which produces about 40 percent of the world's crude, must balance projections of a tight market in the next few months against concerns about rising defaults in the U.S. subprime mortgage industry and worries "that a significant slowdown in demand could be around the corner."

Mortgage lenders have tightened conditions on loans to prospective U.S. home buyers, feeding a housing slump that has stoked fears among energy investors of a wider economic slowdown and reduced demand for oil and gasoline.

The Paris-based International Energy Agency has urged the group to raise crude output, arguing that global demand is likely to outstrip supply with the approach of winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

OPEC already is quietly pumping over its official output target, Platts said in a survey released Friday. Production by the 10 cartel members that adhere to the quota "has been steadily creeping up over the summer" and is now about — million barrels a day over, it said.

Other estimates suggest the 10, which exclude Angola and Iraq, are pumping closer to 30.3 million barrels a day.

Analysts said an increase could come before the next OPEC meeting Dec. 5 in the United Arab Emirates if crude prices move closer to $80 a barrel, winter comes cold and early or a hurricane knocks out a key refinery in the Gulf of Mexico.

Crude hit a record $78.77 a barrel in early August on the Nymex. Many market-watchers see $80 as the new threshold.

The 12 OPEC members are Algeria, Angola, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.

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