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By Edited Apr 25, 2014 0 2
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The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, more commonly known to the world as OPEC, is an international organization that was formed with the goal of partnering with the world’s powers in providing the world with a steady supply of oil at a fair price. The fourteen member countries that make up OPEC today account for 73% of the world’s oil reserves, giving them considerable power when it comes to world oil markets. (OPEC: Brief History)  Coming from a humble beginning in 1960, OPEC has a grown into one of the dominant players in global oil control. It possesses a large amount of political clout and has enough power to influence the direction in which the economy flows. One can grasp a better understanding of OPEC through an analysis of its history, its mandate, the successes and the failures throughout the course of OPEC’s existence.


            The birth of OPEC occurred at a time of major change in the world. The 1960’s marked a historical time in decolonization, with many new independent states coming to fruition in the developing world. OPEC was formed at the Baghdad Conference in September of 1960. It conjured up an objective and a collective vision, as well as set up its secretariat officially in Vienna in 1965. (ibid) “It originally consisted of five oil producing nations. Those nations were Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Over the next 50 or so years, these five founding members were later joined by nine other member states, namely Qatar, Indonesia - who suspended their membership in 2009 due to their becoming a net oil importing country - Libya, The United Arab Emirates, Algeria, Nigeria, Ecuador, Angola and Gabon, the latter being no longer a member. OPEC has its headquarters is Vienna, Austria. In 1968 OPEC adopted the ‘Declaratory Statement of Petroleum Policy in Member Countries’, which highlighted the right for all countries to exercise permanent sovereignty over their natural resources in the interest of their national development. (ibid) OPEC rose to higher international recognition in the 1970’s, when its member countries took a considerable amount more control of their domestic petroleum industries and then in following acquired a larger role in the pricing of oil.  In 1975 the very first Summit of Heads of State took place in Algiers, which led to the creation of the OPEC Fund for International Development. (ibid) Following the creation of this fund, member countries put great effort towards the development of socio-economic growth plans. After recovering from the crash of the mid-80’s, OPEC mandated the inclusion of a group production ceiling for oil, divided up between the member countries. They also established a reference basket of goods to keep the pricing of oil relative. (ibid) The emergence of environmental sustainability on the international agenda was another notable outcome of the 1980’s. Throughout the 1990’s, breakthroughs in the dialogue between the oil consumers and the oil producers added to OPEC’s relationship with the public. In the 2000’s oil was used increasingly as an asset class on global financial markets, which inevitably played a major role in its pricing. In mid-2008 oil prices peaked just before the financial crash and the following global recession. OPEC then occupied a pivotal role in supporting world oil prices and supplying the world with its oil needs during this time of economic crisis. OPEC’s second and third Summit of Heads of State in Caracas in 2000 and in Riyadh in 2007 brought back order to world energy markets, while maintaining sustainable development and the environmental consciousness as prominent themes. (ibid) There have been many oil price shocks worth noting. There was an oil shock during the Iranian revolution, which caused a halt in Iranian petroleum exports. The hostage taking situation that occurred in 1979 in which a group of Iranian students invaded the American embassy in Iran and held 77 Americans hostage, the administration of President Carter placed an embargo on the importation of Iranian oil into the United States. The Iran-Iraq war of 1980 reduced OPEC’s total oil output by 15%. (Rousseau) Another event worth noting occurred in 1990, when Iraq invaded its fellow OPEC member, Kuwait. Iraq had long claimed the territory of Kuwait, and two issues pushed it to consider invasion. The first was the continued pumping of oil, by Kuwait, from an oil field that was located beneath both countries, and the second was low oil revenues for Iraq, which made paying off any of its debts difficult. If they invaded Kuwait, they could claim the entire oil field beneath the two countries and thereby increase its revenues and pay off its debts, and increase their status in OPEC by occupying more reserves. Iraq did not foresee the international community responding so unfavourably to their initiative. Saudi Arabia, as OPEC’s largest oil producer, responded by expanding their oil output by millions of barrels per day for the duration of the invasion and ensuing hostilities. (ibid) Just as OPEC has a colourful history, so do they have a proud mandate.


OPEC’s mandate and objective is to “secure fair and stable prices for petroleum producers; an efficient, economic and regular supply of petroleum to consuming nations; and a fair return on capital to those investing in the industry.” (ibid) The terms “secure and fair stable prices for petroleum producers” has been the subject of much debate. The degree of fairness or stability is determined by the petroleum producers themselves, and hence completely disregards the interest of the rest of the world’s population. When the value of the US dollar decreases, the US dollar being the international trading currency of oil, OPEC increases the price of oil to maintain the buying power of their exports and hence either maintains or increases the revenues of the countries that supply oil. Rising oil prices increase the difficulty level to the populations of both developed and developing nations of purchasing oil. Making oil more expensive can have several consequences. People can either begin to reduce their dependency on oil and begin to use alternative fuel sources, or they can make sacrifices in their everyday lives to continue to purchase the oil, which means they reduce their spending, which creates more stress on the economy because businesses aren’t selling as much due to reduced spending, which then lowers the GDP, which makes the value of the dollar decrease even more, which causes oil prices to rise again etc. It is a vicious circle that can only truly be stopped once we manage to break our dependence on fossil fuels, despite all the lobbying, the major auto companies and the oil producing nations - namely OPEC nations - who rely on oil as their main revenue, all of whom are opposed to reducing our dependence on oil. The second part of their mandate, “an efficient, economic and regular supply of petroleum to consuming nations,” also causes considerable strife.” If they supply was efficient, consumers would not be constantly be bombarded with reports on the scarcity of the oil supply and the resulting increase in price that comes with it. (Oil Scarcity, Growth and Global Imbalances) The supply is not regular either, as demonstrated by their 1973-1974 oil embargo which came about because of American involvement in the Middle East. (Milestones: OPEC Oil Embargo) On October 6th 1973, one of many Arab-Israeli crises took place. Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the holiest day of the entire Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. The Israeli intelligence had failed to spot this attack and they were taken by surprise. Egypt took back some territory that Israel had conquered in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in the Sinai Peninsula, and Syria took back some territory in the Golan Heights that they had lost in the same war. Israel, having lost territory and being stifled from the surprise attack, turned to their American allies for help. On October 10th the Americans, partially motivated by the Soviet Union’s backing of Egypt and Syria and partially motivated by their duty to come to the aid of their ally, decided to air-lift a plethora of military equipment and vehicles into Israel. This helped the Israelis fight back to regain the positions they held only a few days prior. In response to this, the mainly Arab nations of OPEC imposed an oil embargo, which banned exports to nations that supported Israel and decreased oil production by 5% for every month that Israel continued to occupy Arab territory. (ibid) Oil prices quadrupled in that time. The United States, Europe and Japan had built up oil reserves but still relied on Middle Eastern oil production to fuel their economy. The longer the embargo went on, the higher the price of oil rose and the more pressure it put on each respective economy. This lasted for approximately a year until finally the conflict came to an end when the United States put pressure on Israel to enter into negotiations and sign peace accords. (ibid) The Americans had finally decided that the situation was getting out of hand, and also realized that they should play a larger role in maintaining the peace in the Middle East in order to keep oil prices stable. Israel withdrew from territories in the Sinai Peninsula, and eventually withdrew from the Golan Heights. This was enough to end the oil embargo. This demonstrates how the oil supply is not as regular as they claim in their mandate. Coming back to their mandate, if the supply was economic then the price would not increase with each decrease in the value of the American dollar, and it would also not respond so drastically to every one of Wall Street’s valuations. (Verleger Jr.) The portion of their mandate that OPEC does sometimes deliver on is “a fair return on capital to those investing in the industry.” This implies that there is a constant underlying benefit to perpetually increasing oil prices; providing a healthy return on capital to those who invest in the oil industry and thereby keeping the oil industry alive. It also pushes people who don’t invest in oil lower and lower economically in society, because their cost of living will rise if they choose to continue to rely on oil as their main fuel source. After all, to quote the daunting words of Former Saudi oil minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” (Friedman) OPEC nations know that the world’s dependency on oil won’t end when we run out of oil, but when we switch to alternative fuel sources, so they are doing everything in their power to keep that from happening. In 2007 OPEC Heads of State issued the “Riyadh Declaration” which expanded their mandate to a broader range of topics, one that included the stability of global energy markets, an increased focus on energy for sustainable development and increased examination on ways to minimize energy’s impact on the environment. OPEC has had some challenges to face in recent months concerning insuring stability in global energy markets, mainly due to the revolutions of the Arab Spring. The revolution that took place in Libya brought a halt to their contribution of oil to the world markets, which was about two millions barrels per day. (News, CBC) Their role had to be filled by Saudi Arabia who used their excess capacity to make up for the lost contribution from Libya. Once the revolution in Libya ended and Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown, Libya returned to being a normal contributor to OPEC production. (ibid) They also took a major blow in insuring the stability of global energy markets during the world financial crisis that began in 2008, one that we have not fully recovered from yet. The world financial crisis stemmed from the American financial crisis partly because the confidence level that investors have in world financial markets is largely based on the health of the American economy; the economy to which gold used to be pegged, the currency to which oil is traded in, and perhaps the most influential economy in the world. In the years before the financial crisis, banks lent more and more money to home buyers who had bad credit. The loans allowed these borrowers to buy houses even though there was a risk that the borrower would not pay their mortgage. These were called subprime mortgages. The banks retained ownership of the homes as collateral until the loans were paid off. If borrowers didn't repay their loans, the banks could repossess their homes. Banks did this for a number of reasons, namely because if the borrower defaulted, the banks could just resell their home for a profit. Banks would offset their risks by charging lenders with bad credit high interest rates. Some banks would just sell the mortgages off to other companies, passing the risk to them, and those companies would make money off of the high interest rates charged to the original borrower. These techniques worked as long as housing prices continued to rise, which was partially due by banks lending money so frequently, causing a decrease in the supply of housing and a corresponding increase in prices. People began flipping homes; buying for the sole purpose of selling for a profit. Eventually prices rose so high that it became unprofitable to flip homes, causing the bubble to burst and housing prices to nosedive. (Roraback) People began defaulting on loans at a rapid pace leaving lenders with a supply of foreclosed homes whose value had dropped below the amount of the original loan. The system was breaking down. Many of the original lenders had sold the loans to other companies, who then sold them to investment banks. Investment banks had placed these mortgage loans into portfolios that they sold to the public. Once the housing market collapsed, so did the value of the portfolios causing a dangerous sense of uncertainty on Wall Street. (ibid) People began selling many of their stocks due to high market uncertainty. Many banks, mortgage companies and investment companies went bankrupt because they had loans that could not be repaid with a subpar valued home, and they had a severely depleted stock value. Foreign firms had also heavily invested in many of the portfolios with defaulted mortgages attached to them. In this way the subprime mortgage crisis spread to economic infrastructures around the world and created a global financial crisis. Countries whose currencies were pegged to the dollar felt the pain when the American economy faltered, as did countries like China that had invested heavily in U.S. Treasury bonds on which they would now not get a handsome return, if any at all. Also, seeing as the American economy was faltering, so was the value of the American dollar. As previously stated, a depleted American dollar caused OPEC to increase the price of oil to maintain a consistent income rate, seeing as the dollar is the international trade currency for oil. (ibid) The dollar got weaker and weaker and hence oil prices went higher and higher. All financial markets were affected by the financial crisis, including the market for oil. Oil prices peaked in 2008 at a high of 147$ per barrel. (The Impact of the Global Financial Crisis on the World Market) This event infringed upon their attempt to insure stability in global energy markets. In an effort to promote moving down the pathway of sustainable energies, OPEC member states have implemented cleaner oil extraction technologies, and are looking towards a carbon capture and store technology. (OPEC: Our Achievements @ 50) Carbon capture and storage technologies are a method of reducing green house gas emissions by extracting the CO2 from gas streams typically emitted during electricity production and fuel processing. (What Is CO2 Capture and Storage) The CO2 is then compressed and transported by pipeline to a storage site, where it will then be injected into a storage container and placed two kilometres underground for the long term. (ibid) Carbon capture and storage technology has the potential to contribute up to 40 per cent of emission reductions by the middle of the century. (ibid) One CCS project in an OPEC member country already exists, in Salah, Algeria. Industrialised countries, however, having the financial and technological capabilities, should lead the way in developing and deploying these types of technology. OPEC has perhaps deviated from the original portions of its mandate, but has made concerted efforts in sticking to the added facets of the recently adjusted mandate.


Despite these things, OPEC as an organization has achieved certain successes as well. It has achieved some type of success just by the fact that this small conglomeration of countries has managed to control the supply of oil to the entire world; a world filled with perhaps more industrialized, powerful and developed nations. (OPEC: Our Achievements @ 50) Being 50 years old it is a success in and of itself. Many predicted at its inception that it wouldn’t last, due to the difficulty of coordinating the interests of several nations towards one common goal. The formation of OPEC was a brave act. Before 1960 the international petroleum industry was controlled by the so-called “Seven Sisters”, all multinational corporations with headquarters in industrialized nations. They decided how much petroleum was extracted, who it was sold to and at what price. This was the case until in 1960, five oil-producing countries - Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela – banded together with the common goal of achieving their respective national interests and cooperating to ensure and stable and steady supply of oil to the market. In a realm previously dominated by a few multinational corporations based in industrialized nations, OPEC began to gain clout, and little by little it made its mark. The act of their creation in and of itself was an act of bravery, and their existence still to this day marks their success (ibid). The member states of OPEC proudly boast their use of the United Nations Charter by exercising the “inalienable right of any country to exercise permanent sovereignty over their natural resources.” (ibid) OPEC’s membership stems mainly from countries of the developing world. It is this tie to those nations that has pushed them to make easing the plight of impoverished nations as one of their priorities. One way that they do this is by promoting sustainable development in these nations by setting up the OFID; also know as the OPEC Fund for International Development. It has as its core mission to “foster social and economic progress in the developing world through the provision of concessional financing for developing countries.” (OPEC Fund for International Development) The Fund for International Development was created to promote South-South solidarity through co-operation between OPEC member countries and other developing nations. From the beginning, the Fund for International Development has directed its resources to where they have the greatest impact on the lives of the poor, such as primary healthcare, basic education, water supply and sanitation, transport and agriculture, and rural development, while at the same time allowing the key decisions to be made by the governments of the developing nations and by the people themselves. (Five Decades of Achievement) It does this by providing public sector loans for development projects, trade financing, supporting private enterprises, grants, food aid and research and humanitarian relief work. OPEC strives to maintain and grow its relationships with developing nations, fellow development agencies and other partners, to ensure that its assistance continues to be put to good use in an efficient manner. (ibid) The funding itself comes from donations from OPEC’s member countries and from accumulated reserves derived from normal operation. By the end of September 2011, the cumulative aid OFID had contributed to developing nations totalled $13.4 billion. (ibid) On top of this, OPEC Member Countries have done more to alleviate poverty in poorer developing countries than the richer nations of the world in terms of per capita income contribution. Case in point: Saudi Arabia has consistently contributed four per cent of its annual budget for the purpose of aid, outstripping that of many developed nations by a percentage point. (ibid) OPEC has also fervently contributed to reducing the effect the extraction of oil has on the environment. One may argue that it is necessary for them to do this if they want to remain the primary source of fuel for the world. They may fear that if they do not reduce the effect the extraction of oil has on the environment, then people will have more of a reason to switch to a greener fuel. Regardless, they have still contributed a great deal to the reduction of emissions produced in the extraction and the use of oil. Since 1970 the amount of gas flared - or wasted - per barrel of oil has decreased by more than half. (OPEC: Our Achievements @ 50) These advances in technology would perhaps not exist were it not for an organized, centralized entity that coordinated the world’s efforts into one collective process. In November 2007, member countries agreed on the creation of a $750 million venture to invest in clean technology research. (ibid) OPEC has also fostered an environment of cooperation and communication amongst themselves and amongst the other nations of the world. There is a more open line of communication with the major oil producers than ever existed before. OPEC has many objectives, and the majority of them require all member states to strive towards the same goal at the same time, effectively decreasing the distance between states and increasing positive relationships. OPEC and its member countries continue to advocate a coordinated approach to sustainable development, communication and cooperation amongst member states and the rest of the world. OPEC has come to terms with the realities of global climate change and supports “comprehensive, fair and realistic efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of global energy use.” (Five Decades of Achievement) OPEC and its member countries have been active participants in the United Nations-sponsored negotiations on climate change ever since they began in 1992. It should be noted that for developing countries, poverty reduction, economic development and social progress are the priorities and people in such nations will need more energy, not less, to meet their needs. (ibid) Climate change regulations make the plight of these countries even more arduous, although they have contributed little to the current situation. It means that the goal of “common, but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” needs to be paramount. (ibid)


All its successes still standing, OPEC has also had a number of failures over the years. Perhaps one of OPEC’s largest failures is its inability to effectively control oil prices with regards to the major role that Wall Street plays in determining them. OPEC is now falling into the hands of Wall Streets various investment banks. In 2006 commodities became an asset class. (Verleger Jr.) This allowed investors to purchase oil stock, a natural resource, not a company. The financial incentive grew larger when large investment banks and pension funds began amassing piles of oil stock. The lower the number of shares of oil on the market, the higher the price of oil, because oil stocks are then harder to come by and hence more expensive. The higher the number of oil stocks on the market, the lower the price of oil, because oil stocks are easier to come by and hence less expensive. (ibid) Since many investors stockpile their shares of oil, the price of oil increases because there are fewer shares on the market. If many investors were to cash in their oil shares, the price of oil would plummet because of there would be a flood of oil shares on the market; there would be an overabundance of oil shares. OPEC essentially has no role to play in this process, demonstrating their inability to effectively control the price of oil when facing opponents such as Wall Street and the rest of financial world. The financial community does not care about securing a steady flow of oil to the world or insuring proper revenues to oil producing nations, which are OPEC’s primary concerns. The member states of OPEC can try to amass their own reserves of oil shares to begin to have a small say in the role finance plays in determining oil prices, but this role will continue to be minute when compared with the enormity of their opponent; the rest of the financial world. Another failure that can be tied to OPEC is the 1986 crash in the price of oil. OPEC, confronting a decrease in the demand for oil and an increase in the production of oil from non-OPEC member states, responded by cutting its production drastically in the first part of the 1980’s to conserve its initial price and regular return on oil. Saudi Arabia, which contributed to most of OPEC’s oil output, cut their production by 76% during the period of 1980 to 1985. (Nyla) Near the end of 1985 Saudi Arabia decided to change its position and peg crude oil prices to the value of petroleum products. This meant that the more petroleum products in production, the lower the price per barrel of oil. Saudi Arabia then changed its mind and decided to increase oil production to try and capture market share with a lower price per barrel of oil. Competition by OPEC members for higher market share is actively discouraged by OPEC. (The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) Other members of OPEC then followed Saudi Arabia’s lead in order to maintain or capture a greater market share because of the lower price per barrel of oil, and hence began to increase their production as well. The sharp influx of oil on the market caused the price of oil per barrel to drop even more. The price of oil had dropped more than 50% by early 1986, falling to around 20$ per barrel. (Nyla) The drop in the price of oil caused the many high-cost oil refineries in the United States to become grossly unprofitable. They were eventually shut down. The net effect in the drop in the price per barrel of oil was an increase in oil imports, which is what the OPEC member states were trying to capture when they went after obtaining a greater market share. Oil imports went from 3.2 million barrels per day in 1985 to 9.1 million barrels per day in 2000, an increase of nearly threefold. (ibid) During this period, OPEC member states supplied the United States with as much as 60% of their oil imports, falling back to around 50% in 2000. (ibid) American oil companies began to explore foreign oil fields, where oil extraction was much less costly then back home on American soil. After the collapse of the Soviet Union there were large investments made in Russia. Investments were made in Mexico as well. (ibid) Lower petroleum price pushed oil demand higher, increasing it by nearly 30% by 2000. The increase in oil demand due to lower oil prices, and then the corresponding steady increase in the price of oil due to higher demand as well as a number of other factors have gotten us to where we are today, with oil prices hovering around 100$ per barrel, but frequently going above that. (Energy & Oil Prices) There is also a disparity if you look at goals for the pricing of oil amongst OPEC member countries themselves,

The interests of the rich member countries lies more in finding long-term price stability and consequently they favour prices that are low enough to keep the world running on oil for the longest time possible. Further, these nations are mainly concerned with keeping crude oil prices below those of its closest substitutes. Saudi Arabia, which has approximately twenty five percent of the world’s total proven oil reserves, realises that too high or too low a price does not serve the long-term interests of any producer, including the smaller ones. (Wahhab)

The richer member states want to price oil in a manner that lets the world use fuel as a primary fuel source for the longest amount of time possible. This is contrasted by the poorer and heavily populated member states. They favour the highest possible market price in order to maximize current oil revenues, a critical source of revenue for their nation as a whole. (ibid) The discrepancy in the goals that each member state has when trying to set an oil price can lead to inefficient price levels, where prices are either much higher than they need to be and benefit member states, or much lower than they need to be and  benefit the general public.


A thorough analysis of OPEC has revealed several things about this international organization. Hosts to an uncertain beginning, OPEC was marked by the joining together of several nations of the Global South to rise in the face of oil market dominance by the “Seven Sisters”, it was shaken by several world events that caused strife in world oil supply and prices, it is defined by a mandate that is met most of the time, it is committed to a number of funds and organizations that have sustainable development and alleviation of problems of the third world at their core and it is haunted by their inability to effectively control the price of oil when facing the likes of world financial markets. OPEC is an international organization that does what it needs to do to fulfill its mandate to the best of its abilities and survive in an ever-changing world as long as it can; a quality to be admired no matter the entity exhibiting it.

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Apr 18, 2012 3:26am
Thank you for a very detailed and well-documented article!
Apr 18, 2012 7:46am
No problem!
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