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Wed 14 Mar 2007 08:29 PM

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OPEC steers towards steady oil output

Ouput meeting on Thursday will seek to balance forecasts for tighter crude supplies against worries about global stability and the oil price.

OPEC is steering towards keeping its oil output steady, delegates said on Wednesday, but some officials are wary falls in U.S. equities markets could presage a slowdown in the world's top energy consumer.

Global stocks markets tumbled again on concerns over the U.S. subprime mortgage sector, which deals in loans to people with poor credit histories. Tokyo's Nikkei fell 2.9% and Europe's FTSEurofirst was down two per cent.

OPEC ministers, meeting here on Thursday to set the group's oil output, will balance forecasts for tighter crude supplies in the coming months against nagging worries about global financial and economic stability, and the oil price.

"There is some concern about tightness in the third quarter but we also need to look at how the economic situation develops," said one delegate, raising the possibility that OPEC may need to meet again in June to review matters.

"The stock market is giving some indication that we may need to do something - at least hold another meeting," said a second delegate, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Public comments by OPEC ministers played down any immediate concerns as oil steadied near $58 a barrel.

"We have to sit and watch the behaviour of the stock market," said Kuwaiti Oil Minister Sheikh Ali al-Jarrah al-Sabah. "You can't predict the economy."

The head of Libya's delegation, Shokri Ghanem, agreed: "We have to wait a little bit. So far we are not worried very much."

Nigerian Oil Minister Edmund Daukoru believed financial markets were experiencing nothing more than a blip.

"I don't see it having a long term effect on global economic growth. I don't see an impact on demand for oil," he said.

Most OPEC members, including leading exporter Saudi Arabia, have said they favour maintaining current output at this meeting having agreed cuts totalling 1.7 million barrels per day, or six per cent of supplies, at talks in October and December. OPEC officials have said the emphasis is likely to be on ensuring these cuts are fully in place. Industry analysts estimate that OPEC, which pumps over a third of the world's oil, has made good roughly one million bpd of the pledged reductions.

The International Energy Agency and some analysts believe OPEC may have gone too far with its supply curbs.

According to the IEA, adviser to 26 industrialised countries, OECD countries could be headed for the largest first quarter drop in oil stocks for over 10 years.

"OPEC may have had the impression that the market was oversupplied, but that is no longer the case. In fact we see it as rather undersupplied," IEA Executive Director Claude Mandil told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in London.

"I think they should soon consider an increase in output."

Even the most conservative projection, OPEC's own, puts demand for OPEC oil at above 30 million bpd this year. That number includes Iraq and new member Angola, both of which are exempt from output restrictions for the time being.

The 10 OPEC members subject to restrictions currently have an output target of 25.8 million bpd.

The oil price is well down on its July 2006 peak of $78.40, but is still three times the level at the start of 2002 when Asian demand ignited. OPEC argues prices must be sufficiently high to encourage investment without choking economic growth.

The organization scrupulously avoids setting a price target but some ministers have said they believe $60 is a reasonable level for U.S. oil. Others set the bar higher.

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