Russia, S. Arabia Agree to Freeze Crude Output

Russia, S. Arabia Agree  to Freeze Crude OutputRussia, S. Arabia Agree  to Freeze Crude Output

Top oil exporters Russia and Saudi Arabia agreed on Tuesday to freeze output levels but said the deal was contingent on other producers joining in—a major sticking point with Iran absent from the talks and determined to raise production.

The Saudi, Russian, Qatari and Venezuelan oil ministers announced the proposal after a previously undisclosed meeting in Doha, their highest-level discussion in months on joint action to tackle a growing oversupply of crude and help prices recover from their lowest levels in more than a decade, Reuters reported.

Iran's Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh reacted to the agreement by insisting on the Persian Gulf country's plans to boost crude production capacity.

"What is important is that oil market is grappling with an oversupply and Iran will not back out from its [market] share," he was quoted as saying by the Oil Ministry's official news agency Shana on Tuesday.

Oil prices jumped to $35.55 per barrel after the news about the secret meeting but later pared gains to trade below $34, as expectations for an immediate deal faded.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said freezing production at January levels, near record highs, was an adequate measure and he hoped other producers would adopt the plan.

Venezuela's Oil Minister Eulogio Del Pino said more talks would take place with Iran and Iraq on Wednesday in Tehran.

"The reason we agreed to a potential freeze of production is simple: It is the beginning of a process which we will assess in the next few months and decide if we need other steps to stabilize and improve the market," Naimi told reporters.

"We don't want significant gyrations in prices; we don't want reduction in supply; we want to meet demand; we want a stable oil price. We have to take a step at a time," he said.

The agreement reached by oil producers in Qatar's capital is to maintain average production levels in 2016 at the level of January 2016, Russia's Energy Ministry said in a statement.

Russia's Energy Minister Alexander Novak said "the decision will be taken if other producers join this initiative".

Ball in Iran's Court

Iran has pledged to increase output in the coming months as it looks to regain market share lost after years of international sanctions, which were lifted in January following a deal with world powers over its nuclear program.

The fact output from Saudi Arabia and Russia—the world's two top producers and exporters—is near record highs also makes an agreement tricky since Iran is producing at least 1 million barrels per day below its capacity and pre-sanctions levels.

Eugen Weinberg, head of commodities research at Commerzbank AG in Frankfurt, said, “If Iran and Iraq are not a part of the agreement, it’s not worth much—and even then there is still a question of compliance.”

Qatar's Oil Minister Mohammed al-Sada said, "We think other producers need to freeze straight away, including Iran and Iraq. We believe this step is meant to stabilize the market."

Iraq also has long said it expected its production to rise further this year, but last month it said it was ready to reduce its fast-growing output if all OPEC and non-OPEC members agreed.

Rollercoaster Ride

The Doha meeting came after more than 18 months of declining oil prices, knocking crude below $30 a barrel for the first time in over a decade from as high as $115 a barrel in mid-2014.

The slump was triggered by booming US shale oil output and a decision by Saudi Arabia to raise production to fight for market share and drive higher-cost production out of the market.

Saudi Arabia has long insisted it would reduce supply only if other OPEC and non-OPEC members agreed, but Russia, the No. 2 exporter, has said it would not join in as its Siberian fields were different from those of OPEC.

The mood began to change in January as oil prices fell below $30-a-barrel level.

While Venezuela has been the hardest-hit producer, current oil prices are a fraction of what Russia needs to balance its budget as it heads toward parliamentary elections this year.