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OPEC Seen Holding Oil Output Steady

OPEC is likely to hold oil output steady when it gathers on Sept. 11 because of abundant crude inventories and nagging worries over the global economy, but leave the door open for a supply boost later this year.

Oil has climbed back within sight of its Aug. 1 record high of $78.77 a barrel as investors bet the 12 exporters will stick to current daily output of just over 30 million barrels.

For consumers, the worry is that level of pumping will leave them short of fuel come winter. But the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries sees little chance of that.

Ministers have vowed repeatedly to produce more crude if needed.

"I don't think OPEC has anything to do at the meeting next week," Qatari Oil Minister Abdullah al-Attiyah told Reuters. "In my opinion, supply is sufficient."

Only Indonesia, OPEC's second smallest producer and a net importer, has said it may propose an increase in Vienna next week. Top world exporter and OPEC's most influential member, Saudi Arabia, has not publicly said what OPEC should do.

While, for OPEC, the time for higher output may not be right now, it may be when they gather again on Dec. 5. By then it may be clear that demand has remained strong enough to justify a supply increase of up to 1 million barrels per day (bpd).

Since the group that pumps more than a third of the world's oil last met in March to set output limits for 10 of its 12 members, consumers led by the International Energy Agency have called again and again for more oil.

OPEC officials have rebuffed them, saying crude supply is ample and they are not to blame for shortages of refined fuel and political tension.

At the same time, they have grown increasingly concerned that a slowing U.S. economy and fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis could cut oil consumption during the remainder of the year.

Investors say an output increase could make prices slip once concern eases about the threat of disruption to U.S. Gulf of Mexico oil supplies from Atlantic storms.

"Raising supply in the recent circumstances would probably cause further price falls especially after the Hurricane season, given current sentiment regarding the impact of the subprime mortgage market on U.S. consumers," said Richard Batty of Standard Life Investments.

Demand Worries

Though initially pressured by the prospect of a global credit crunch, oil prices so far have been spared much of the volatility seen in the financial markets and demand growth appears to be robust.

"The uncertainties are on the demand side," said an OPEC delegate. "There's no reason for concern as far as supply goes."

A Reuters poll shows the world's top two consumers -- the United States and China -- driving world oil demand growth to 1.4 million barrels per day this year.

That rate of consumption would require OPEC output of at least 31.1 million bpd on IEA estimates, well above current levels of 30.4 million bpd.

"The bottom line is that OPEC will need to add barrels to the market this winter," said Katherine Spector of JP Morgan. OPEC itself sees demand for its crude rising to 31.3 million bpd in the fourth quarter -- up about 200,000 bpd from its third-quarter forecast. The U.S. government expects the need for OPEC barrels to rise 500,000 bpd from the third quarter to 31 million bpd during the last three months of 2007.

Some OPEC sources say more oil may be needed.

"If things stay as they are, I believe we need to increase by 500,000 barrels per day to 1 million bpd," an OPEC source told Reuters. "Perhaps in December, depending on the stocks."

OPEC agreed last year to lower production by 1.2 million bpd from Nov. 1 and by a further 500,000 bpd from Feb. 1 to prop up prices. The accord covers 10 members, all except Iraq and Angola.

While compliance with the deal has eased from rates above 60 percent earlier this year, the group is delivering on more than half of the cutback.

The OPEC source pegged OPEC's level of compliance at about 52 percent and a Reuters survey of OPEC production in August found a similar rate of 53 percent.

"OPEC is making sure it keeps supply ahead of demand -- so no one should blame us for higher prices," said the OPEC delegate.