What Is OPEC? Its Members and History

OPEC Agreed to Its First Output Cut Since 2008

OPEC oil in Saudi Arabia
A citizen walks along a waterfront oil refinery plant in Saudi Arabia. Photo by Liaison / Getty Images

Definition: OPEC stands for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. It is an organization of twelve oil-producing countries that control 61 percent of the world's oil exports and hold 80 percent of the world's proven oil reserves.

On November 30, 2016, OPEC agreed to cut production by 1.2 million barrels. Starting January 2017, it will produce 32.5 million barrels per day (mbpd). That's still above its average 2015 level of 32.32 mbpd.

 The agreement exempted Nigeria and Libya, but gave Iraq its first quotas since the 1990s. Russia, not an OPEC member, voluntarily agreed to cut production. (Source:"OPEC in First Joint Cut With Russia Since 2001," Reuters, December 1, 2016. "OPEC Confounds Skeptics, Agrees to First Cut in Eight Years," Bloomberg, November 30, 2016.)

The cut came a year after OPEC had raised its production quota to 31.5 mbpd on December 4, 2015. OPEC was struggling to maintain market share, which fell from 44.5 percent in 2012 to 41.8 percent in 2014. That's because of a 16 percent increase in U.S. shale oil production. As the oil supply rose, prices fell from $108.54 in April 2012 to $34.72 in December 2015. See Oil Price History.

OPEC waited to cut oil production because it didn't want to see its market share drop further. It produces oil more cheaply than its U.S. competition. The cartel toughed it out until many of the shale companies went bankrupt.

For more, see Shale Oil Boom and Bust. (Source: "OPEC and Oil: Who's in Charge?" The Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2015.)

What Does OPEC Do?

OPEC's first goal is to keep prices stable. It wants to make sure its members get what a good price for their oil. Since oil is a fairly uniform commodity, most consumers base their buying decisions on nothing other than price.

What's a good price? OPEC has traditionally said it was between $70-$80 per barrel.  At those prices, OPEC countries have enough oil to last 113 years. If prices drop below that target, OPEC members normally agree to restrict supply to send prices higher.

Without this agreement, individual oil-exporting countries would wind up increasing the supply to make more national revenue. By competing with each other, they would drive prices even lower. That would stimulate even more global demand. OPEC countries would run out of their most precious resource that much faster. Instead, OPEC members agree to produce only enough to keep the price high for all members.

When prices are higher than $80 a barrel, other countries have the incentive to drill more expensive oil fields. Sure enough, once oil prices got closer to $100 a barrel, it became cost effective for Canada to explore its shale oil fields. U.S. companies used fracking to open up the Bakken oil fields for production. As a result, non-OPEC supply increased.

OPEC's second goal is to reduce oil price volatility. For maximum efficiency, oil extraction must run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Closing facilities could physically damage oil installations and even the fields themselves. Ocean drilling is especially difficult and expensive to shut down. Therefore, it's in OPEC's best interests to keep world prices stable. A slight modification in production is usually enough to restore price stability.

For example, in June 2008, oil prices hit an all-time high of $143/barrel. OPEC responded by agreeing to produce a little more oil, which brought prices down. But the global financial crisis sent oil prices plummeting to $33.73/barrel in December. OPEC responded by reducing the supply, helping prices to again stabilize. 

OPEC third goal is to adjust the world's oil supply in response to shortages. For example, it replaced the oil lost during the Gulf Crisis in 1990. Several million barrels of oil per day were cut off when Saddam Hussein's armies destroyed refineries in Kuwait. OPEC also increased production in 2011 during the crisis in Libya.

The Oil and Energy Ministers from the OPEC members meet at least twice a year to coordinate their oil production policies. Each member country abides by an honor system, agreeing to produce a certain amount. If a country winds up producing more, there really is no sanction or penalty. Furthermore, each country is responsible for reporting its own production. Therefore, there is room for "cheating." On the other hand, a country won't go too far over its quota, since it doesn't want to risk being kicked out of OPEC.

Despite its power, OPEC cannot completely control the price of oil. In some countries, additional taxes are imposed on gasoline and other oil-based end products to promote conservation. More importantly, oil prices are set by the oil futures market. Much of the oil price is determined by these commodities traders. For more on this, see Why Are Oil Prices So High?

OPEC Members

OPEC currently has twelve active members. Ecuador suspended its membership in 1992, and reactivated it in 2009. 

OPEC CountryJoinedLocatedOil Produced (mbpd) 2015Comments
Algeria1969Africa    1.16 
Angola2007Africa    1.77 
Ecuador1973Central America    0.54 
Gabon1975Africa    NATerminated
Indonesia1962Asia    0.69Will resign rather than cut.
Iran1960Middle East    3.15Will rise by 0.5 mbpd due to nuclear treaty.
Iraq1960Middle East    3.5Needs funds for Iraq War.
Kuwait1960Middle East    2.86 
Libya1962Middle East    0.40 
Nigeria1971Africa    1.75 
Qatar1961Middle East    0.66 
Saudi Arabia1960Middle East    10.19Produces one-third of total.
United Arab Emirates1967Middle East    2.99 
Venezuela1960Central America    2.65Funds failing government.
TOTAL OPEC    32.32 

 

Saudi Arabia is by far the largest producer, contributing nearly one-third of total OPEC oil production. It is really the only member that produces enough alone to materially impact the world's supply. For this reason, it has more authority and influence than the other countries. (Source: OPEC Annual Statistical Bulletin 2016)

Why Was OPEC Formed?

In 1960, five OPEC countries formed an alliance to regulate the supply and price of oil. These countries realized they had a non-renewable resource. If they competed with each other, the price of oil would be so low that they would run out sooner than if oil prices were higher.

OPEC held its first meeting on September 10-14 1960 in Baghdad, Iraq. The five founding members were Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. OPEC registered with the United Nations on November 6, 1962. (Source: OPEC Brief History)

OPEC didn't flex its muscle until the 1973 oil embargo. It responded to a sudden drop in the U.S. dollar's value after President Nixon abandoned the gold standard. As the dollar fell, so did the revenues of oil exporters, since oil contracts are priced in dollars. In response to the embargo, the United States created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. For more, see Gold Standard History.

Non-OPEC Oil-Producing Countries 

Many non-OPEC members also voluntarily adjust their oil production in response to OPEC's decisions. In the 1990s, they increased production to take advantage of OPEC's restraints. That resulted in low oil prices and profits for everyone. These cooperating non-OPEC members are Mexico, Norway, Oman, and Russia.

Oil shale producers did not learn that lesson in 2014. They kept pumping oil, sending prices plummeting in 2014. As a result, many went below their break-even price of $65 a barrel. OPEC did not step in to lower its production. Instead, it allowed prices to fall to maintain its own market share. That's because the break-even price is much lower for most of its members. It's $7 a barrel for Saudi Arabia, and $13 a barrel for Iraq. (Source: "The Oil Glut: From Dallas to Siberia," The Wall Street JournalJune 5, 2015). 

For more on today's oil prices see Oil Price Forecast

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