By Rania El Gamal and Alex Lawler
VIENNA, Nov 28 – OPEC was trying on Monday to rescue a deal to limit oil output as tensions grew among the producer group and non-OPEC member Russia, with top exporter Saudi Arabia saying markets would rebalance even without an agreement.
A gathering of OPEC experts failed to reach a compromise on how exactly the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries should reduce production when it meets on Nov. 30, according to several sources briefed on the matter.
After more than nine hours of talks, Iran and Iraq continued to insist on higher output numbers, said the sources, who were not allowed to speak publicly about the matter.
Meanwhile, the Algerian and Venezuelan oil ministers were travelling to Moscow on Monday in a final attempt to persuade Russia to take part in cuts instead of merely freezing output, which has reached new highs in the past year.
In September, OPEC, which accounts for a third of global oil production, agreed to cap output at around 32.5-33.0 million barrels per day versus the current 33.64 million bpd to prop up oil prices, which have more than halved since mid-2014.
The meeting on Nov. 30 had been expected to rubber-stamp that deal, with Russia and some other non-OPEC producers such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan also contributing.
But doubts emerged in recent weeks as OPEC’s No.2 and 3 producers, Iraq and Iran, expressed reservations about the mechanics of output reductions and Saudi Arabia voiced concern about Russia’s willingness to cut.
Over the weekend, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said oil markets would rebalance even without an output-limiting pact. He had previously said Riyadh was keen for a deal.
On Friday, OPEC cancelled an experts meeting with non-OPEC producers scheduled for Nov. 28 after Saudi Arabia said the organisation needed to sort out its differences first.
Russia, which like Saudi Arabia depends heavily on oil revenues, said on Monday it remained keen to coordinate action with OPEC but refrained from stating whether it was prepared to cut output.
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin spoke to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and both highlighted “the importance of OPEC’s efforts to cap production as a key measure to stabilise global oil markets”.
Doubts about OPEC’s ability to deliver promised cuts sent Brent crude down 2 percent initially on Monday to less than $47 a barrel.
Prices later recovered to trade up 2.5 percent after Iraq’s oil minister said he remained optimistic that a deal could be clinched on Wednesday.
Some analysts including Morgan Stanley and Macquarie have said oil prices will correct sharply if OPEC fails to reach a deal, potentially going as low as $35 per barrel.
As OPEC experts turned up at the group’s headquarters on Monday, one delegate who had previously stated that a deal would be done, said this time: “I am not sure.”
Another delegate, when asked about the prospects for a deal, said: “Nobody knows yet”.
Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar Ali al-Luaibi, upon arrival in Vienna, declined to say whether Iraq was ready to cut output: “We hope we (will) have agreement. We will cooperate with OPEC members to reach agreement acceptable to all.”
Saudi Arabia’s Falih was not expected to land before Tuesday evening, leaving little time for traditional pre-meeting discussions with peers.
Iranian semi-official news agency MEHR published an editorial on Sunday accusing Saudi Arabia of declaring a new “war on oil prices” and saying the Saudi position had changed because of infighting in the royal family.
The tone contrasted with Iranian news agencies’ more upbeat coverage of OPEC’s informal meeting in September in Algeria, when the initial deal was reached.
As prospects for a deal on Wednesday faded, some veteran OPEC players urged the group to do its utmost to achieve the first output-limiting deal since 2008 in order to stay relevant.
“OPEC needs to wake up instead of playing a game of who will cry first,” said former Qatari energy minister and OPEC president Abdullah al-Attiyah.