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OPEC Set to Meet as Oil Prices Remain High


Oil ministers from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries are gathering in Venezuela to discuss oil output and prices, which have soared to record highs. The bloc is expected to maintain production levels, even as OPEC member Venezuela calls for a cut. Whatever OPEC decides, it may have little impact on high crude prices.

The main issue facing officials from OPEC nations meeting in Venezuela is whether a change in production levels will affect crude prices around the world. For nearly a year the 11-nation group has had an official production quota of 28 million barrels - its highest level in 25 years.

Actual output is reported to be even higher. And Frank Verrastro, director of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says he does not expect that level to change.

"They're already producing over 30 million barrels a day," said Frank Verrastro. "I can't imagine that they would reduce the quota output at this point. Everyone is just ignoring the quota and producing what they can. But the market seems to be fully supplied. Stocks are building."

Venezuela's government has taken note of the build-up of crude stocks outside OPEC'S control, and says it is now safe to trim production levels. Other OPEC ministers, however, have already rejected that possibility because of fear that a reduction could trigger even higher prices and alienate consumers.

Still, analysts say that the real cause of high oil prices may be out of OPEC's hands. Verrastro points to hurricane damage to oil facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, and continuing violence in Nigeria and Iraq.

"We're still down about 300,000 barrels [a day] in the Gulf of Mexico from the last hurrican season that never came back, and tomorrow [June 1] starts a new hurricane season," he said. "We're off about half a million barrels a day in Nigeria, and Iraq is still down at least half a million barrels a day."

One of the major factors preventing stable oil prices is political uncertainty in Iran, because of a dispute with the West about Iran's nuclear program. Analysts are concerned that supplies from Iran could be cut if the United States and Europe press for tough measures at the United Nations.

Some of those concerns were allayed Wednesday after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered to join European nations in talks with Iran. Crude prices dropped slightly after the announcement. But with the price of oil still at more than $70 a barrel, it is unlikely that consumers will see relief soon at the gas pump.

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