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OPEC talks in stalemate over size of crude output cut and exemptions

Vienna — OPEC still has unfinished business in negotiating a production accord, canceling its post-meeting press conference Thursday, as sources involved in the talks said members continue to haggle over how much output to cut and who should be exempted.

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Saudi Arabia's Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said OPEC was still "deliberating" a deal as he left the meeting, which dragged on for several hours without conclusion.

OPEC had been expected to reach an agreement in principle among itself at its meeting in Vienna on Thursday, before inviting Russia and nine other non-OPEC allies to talks Friday to seal the deal. But talks were continuing into the evening, with scant signs of progress.

The usual pre-meeting ministerial press availability in the morning was initially called off the night before, before being reinstated after significant protest by reporters in attendance -- an indication of how chaotic and sensitive the negotiations were shaping up to be. One OPEC delegate told S&P Global Platts before the meeting began that he saw the talks as "tough but not impossible."

Saudi energy minister Falih earlier Thursday had told reporters a collective OPEC/non-OPEC output cut of 1 million b/d "would be adequate," sending crude prices tumbling as traders questioned the coalition's resolve to shore up a market expected to be bearish ahead.

Saudi Arabia, OPEC's largest producer, has ramped up its production by more than 1 million b/d since May, pumping 11.02 million b/d in November, according to the latest S&P Global Platts OPEC survey, as the kingdom acquiesced to US pressure to keep the market well supplied ahead of the US elections and re-imposition of sanctions on Iran.

That has upset some members who blame Saudi Arabia for the looming supply glut that OPEC is now trying to head off through production cuts. Some members also resent Saudi Arabia's consultations with Russia on output policy, accusing the kingdom of giving the non-OPEC producer too much clout over the group's decisions.

Libya and Iran said before the meeting they would seek exemptions, with the chairman of Libya's National Oil Corporation, Mustafa Sanalla, citing the country's instability and Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh saying Tehran would not participate in any output cuts while it was under US sanctions.

Nigeria, which like Libya had received an exemption the last time OPEC negotiated cuts in 2016, is open to participating in supply curbs this time around, its oil minister Emmanuel Kachikwu said, though he added that larger producers should bear more of the burden.

The week had already gotten off to a rocky start for OPEC, with Qatar announcing Monday -- to many OPEC officials' shock -- that it was quitting OPEC. New oil minister Saad al-Kaabi told reporters on arrival in Vienna late Wednesday that his country held too little clout in the organization as one of its smallest producers to be worthwhile. Qatar is locked in a diplomatic row with its larger Gulf neighbors, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, though Kaabi denied that his country's departure was due to politics.

--Staff, newsdesk@spglobal.com

--Edited by Jonathan Dart, jonathan.dart@spglobal.com