OPEC deadline looms as oil hits fresh 4-year low

Oil futures sank to a fresh four-year low overnight as ministers from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are set to meet Thursday with a group decision to cut production output looking increasingly unlikely.

Brent crude futures fell to $76.26 per barrel early on Thursday morning with U.S. crude futures extending declines to hover near a four-year low below $76 a barrel. Trading in the latter could be subdued in Thursday's session with markets closed for the U.S. Thanksgiving Day holiday.

In Vienna, ministers are expected to come to a decision on whether to cut OPEC's official quota of 30 million barrels a day. Early speculation suggested that Saudi Arabia - the main swing producer in the region - would call for a cut of up to 1.5 million barrels a day to help put a floor under prices which have dipped 30 percent since the summer.

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OPEC headquarters in Vienna, Austria.
Patti Domm | CNBC
OPEC headquarters in Vienna, Austria.

However, among the media frenzy on Wednesday Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi confirmed that OPEC's Gulf states had already reached a consensus. Reuters reported, citing a Gulf OPEC delegate, that this consensus would be to hold off on any immediate drop in production.

Diezani Alison-Madueke, the Nigerian oil minister, remained coy on whether anything had already been agreed, telling CNBC that "anything is possible" ahead of the discussions.

"We have to decide among ourselves to see what is the best way forward," she said.

The lack of agreement between the ministers was further underlined as the meeting began at around 10:00 a.m London time. Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh told CNBC that he thought it necessary to do something that has a "short-term effect" on the market. Suhail bin Mohammed al-Mazroui, the minister from the United Arab Emirates said the opposite, stating that the country cared about "long-term stability" and was not interested in "quick fixes."

Neil Atkinson, the head of analysis at Lloyd's List Intelligence, told CNBC that he believes that OPEC will hold off on making any snap decision at the current meeting.

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"They will come back again in three months' time," he said on the sidelines of the event. "By which time we'll see whether the low oil price environment really is here to stay."

Global oil prices have plunged since peaking in June. From around $115 a barrel, Brent crude has lost around a third of its price. Weak demand, a strong dollar and booming U.S. oil production are the three main reasons behind the fall, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which warned of a "new chapter" for oil markets, which could even affect the social stability of some countries.

The drop in oil has weighed heavily on energy stocks but has boosted some companies that are heavily reliant on the commodity, like airlines.

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Atkinson predicted that oil will slide further in the coming weeks but without any "massive downside." He added that Saudi Arabia is right to be patient in making a decision and will use the next three months to put further pressure on non-OPEC producers - like Russia - to come to an agreement on production.

Alison-Madueke echoed this sentiment, telling CNBC that in the future an agreement with non-OPEC countries would be beneficial. "We will all have to reach out and sit across the table," she said.

Johannes Benigni, the founder and managing director of consultancy firm JBC Asia, believes that there would be a cut agreed on Thursday and estimated that OPEC production could dip to between 29 and 29.5 million barrels a day.

"It's a done deal that they will," he said, likening the fall in oil price to a burning house. "The house is clearly burning...the fire brigade is coming."