Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih
© Reuters / Heinz-Peter Bader
Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih
OPEC has reportedly agreed to cut oil production, but the cartel ended its closely-watched meeting on Thursday without specifying how many barrels it would aim to remove from the market.

The influential OPEC oil cartel gathered at its headquarters in Vienna, Austria with the aim of reaching an accord over throttling back output. The 15-member organization will hold talks with allied oil-producing nations including Russia on Friday.

The much-anticipated meeting comes at a time when the oil market is near the bottom of its worst price plunge since the 2008 financial crisis. Oil prices have crashed around 30 percent over the last two months, ratcheting up the pressure on budgets in oil-exporting countries.

Yet Russia's refusal to commit to a production quota and OPEC's failure to hammer out the details of a deal underscore the divisions among producers, despite consensus that the group needs to take some form of action to boost the market.

The group has agreed in principle to reduce its output, two sources told Reuters on Thursday. However, OPEC delayed making a decision on how deeply it would cut production until after it meets with Russia on Friday. With few details to offer journalists, OPEC canceled a scheduled press conference.

"The fact that they're saying the debate will continue tomorrow emphasizes the disarray," said John Kilduff, founding partner at energy hedge fund Again Capital.

Saudi Arabia, OPEC's largest producer, signaled earlier on Thursday that the group may reduce production less than the market expected.

The Saudis have been leading calls for the group to trim output, amid surging supply and fears that an economic slowdown will erode fuel demand. The oil-rich kingdom has previously indicated it wants the group to curb output by at least 1.3 million barrels per day.

However, Saudi Arabia's Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih told reporters Thursday morning that an output cut of 1 million bpd would be sufficient for OPEC and its allied producers. That is in part because Alberta, Canada announced this week it would require producers to cut output by about 325,000 bpd to drain the province's brimming crude stockpiles.

"The number that we need is going to be less than 1.3 [million]. Is it a million? Is it slightly less, slightly more? We have all day today and some of tomorrow to determine those numbers," Falih said.

That prompted international benchmark Brent crude and U.S. West Texas Intermediate to fall more than 4 percent, as energy market participants feared the energy alliance would only manage to impose measures at the bottom end of expectations.

Brent was trading at $59.09 a barrel, down 4 percent, at around 11:22 a.m. ET (1522 GMT), while WTI stood at $50.57, down 4.4 percent.

Ahead of the meeting, the likely outcome was OPEC and non-OPEC members would agree to a supply cut of around 1 million to 1.4 million bpd. As always though, the hard part for the energy alliance is not figuring out a number, but rather how the group divvies up the cuts.

Russia has appeared reluctant to sign off on a reversal in production strategy. The non-OPEC heavyweight has warned the energy alliance must tread carefully this week to ensure it does not change course by 180 degrees whenever it meets.

OPEC began capping supply in partnership with Russia and several other nations last year in order to end a punishing downturn in oil prices. The alliance reversed course and agreed to hike output in June after the alliance removed more barrels from the market than it intended, largely the freefall in Venezuelan output and supply disruptions in Libya.

Five unnamed delegates told Reuters ahead of the meeting that the group's preferred level of supply cuts would effectively be conditional on Moscow's contribution.

Complicating matters further, U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday renewed his call for OPEC to keep production steady and reduce the cost of crude.

"Hopefully OPEC will be keeping oil flows as is, not restricted. The world does not want to see, or need, higher oil prices!" Trump said in a tweet on Wednesday.


Comment: The Saudi Energy Minister responded to Trump's comments by saying:
"I don't need approval from any foreign state when it comes to the issue of energy production," the top official said as quoted by RIA Novosti.

The U.S. president is publicly in favor of low fuel prices and has urged Saudi Arabia to drive crude futures even lower at OPEC's final meeting of the calendar year.

Saudi Arabia comes into the meeting badly bruised by revelations that agents of the kingdom murdered Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in October. Trump is standing by his allies in Riyadh, but he's made it clear he wants the Saudis to keep a lid on oil prices.