Behind the Big Fight at OPEC

Big fight at the OPEC corral means possibly lower gas prices for you and me -- if the pro-production wing wins.

The meeting ended in acrimony, amid name calling, likely one of the worst meetings ever, said Saudi Arabia's top oil minister.

What's behind the fight? Food inflation. Iran, Venezuela, Algeria and Angola subsidize food in their countries, using oil reserves. Food prices are going up. Tensions in the region are going up. And Libya blew up in chaos in its own version of the Arab spring, due to a murderous dictator, corruption and tension over higher prices, among other things.

So seeing the collapse of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, Iran and its cohort want to keep the status quo and not ramp up production, to keep oil prices high and thus their revenues into the country flowing. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and others want to boost production. They see consumption rising, and they know that higher oil prices stop higher prices--people don't buy and people cut back on driving when gas veers towards $5 a gallon.

Saudi Arabia, the central bank of oil, may win the fight here, which means lower gas prices. Saudi Arabia has the spare capacity to pump, an estimated 4.5 million extra barrels a day. Iran and Venezuela don't, especially because their refineries are geriatric and their protectionist attitudes hurt their oil sectors.

These OPEC members also see China consuming ever more oil, as two billion to three billion more people are expected to enter the middle class there and in India over the next decade. Today, China is Japan circa 1963 when it comes to the number of cars per capita. That will change very soon. As more of the Chinese buy cars, demand for oil and gas will go up.

Higher oil and gas prices matter to the U.S., because high oil prices tip economies into recession, or even stagflation, both of which are kryptonite now to a weak U.S. recovery.

Oil prices may rocket around for a while, due to tensions in the Mideast. That's what happened in the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and 1974, slapped on this country after the U.S.'s support of Israel in the seven-day war. Oil prices soared higher after the Iranian revolution in 1979, and a year later after war broke out between Iraq and Iran the next year.

Phil Flynn, top notch oil trader and oil expert has an encyclopedic memory. Here's his esteemed take on the OPEC fight--and what he really thinks of OPEC:

The worst meeting OPEC ever had may prove to best meeting for the global economy. OPEC came apart at the seams and a new cold war within the cartel spells a new era of insignificance for the players where greed and corruption is normally encouraged.

Some may believe this is just about oil but to think that, you really miss the underlying significance of this meeting breakdown. This goes beyond oil and production but is another branch of the Arab spring and the leaders that are trying to assert their power and control over their people. This is about the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. This is about the war in Libya.

This is about the Saudi intervention in Bahrain but most of all this is an end of an era. Perhaps the end of the most successful era where OPEC went from being a joke to a global economic powerhouse back to being a joke.

The golden age of OPEC was really born back in 1999 when oil price plunged to an adjusted for inflation near all time low. The cheating cartel realized that if they did not ban tighter and actually cut production they would all drown in a sea of oil.

The markets had no respect for those merry band of conspirators but a change of heart from perpetually OPEC quota busters Venezuela and the Saudi's and the Iranians' burying the hatchet so to speak help set the stage for the biggest run in oil prices that the world has ever seen.

The cartel was led out of the abyss in part because they were forced to get along but also because of the intelligent leadership of Ai Naimi who I gave the name "the Alan Greenspan of Oil" not to mention an industrial revolution in China that was built on plunging commodity prices and some capitalistic market reforms.

Under Naimi's wise leadership he tried to transform OPEC into a central bank of oil treating a barrel like a currency using it to either prop up price or temper price. Of course he was trying to put lipstick on the OPEC pig because at the end of the day, this was a greedy, driven marriage of convenience to try to manipulate the price of oil at the expense of the global economy to line their own pockets, keep their regimes in power and keep their economies solely dependent on oil so they could centralize control and become even more powerful.

Yet now this d�tente has come crashing down amid threats to government power and religious sect divisions and greed and hatred. Iran is desperately trying to establish itself as the major power in the region and wants to stand up to the real leaders of the OPEC cartel, Saudi Arabia. The Iranians are still incensed that Saudi Arabia came to the rescue of the Sunni led Bahrain government during a mainly Shiite uprising. The Iranians saw it as an opportunity to expand their influence through the region. While the Iranians of course were outraged at the Saudi meddling, as for their part, they have no qualms in slaughtering their own people and meddling in Syrian politics and supporting terror in Iraq.

Some of the other buffoons that went along with this Iranian led OPEC showdown like Venezuela, Algeria, Angola, and Libya are also jealous that the Saudis can buy the love of their people with ample oil supply while they cannot.

These shortsighted greedy countries need a higher price to cover their misdeeds and have oil production envy from their Saudi leadership. Even in today's New York Times headlines, "In Saudi Arabia, Royal Funds Buy Peace for Now". Iran can't buy peace with gasoline shortages and you have got to believe with the rising costs of metals, bullets are getting more expensive as well. Add to that the pathetic economies of Algeria and Angola there is an element of, hey we want to matter as well.

The bottom line is that this is more bearish for price of crude oil than bullish. In fact this is the demise of the OPEC quota system despite the spin that the cartel is touting because the green light is on with an open invitation to pump as much oil as you can. In fact the Saudis will ramp up production even more to send a message to the discontents that they still are the leaders of the cartel.

The Saudis of course have sent that message in the past by flooding the market with oil yet the impact this time might not be as great as rising demand and the lack of high quality oil may temper the move.

Still the message is clear! Unless the royal family is overthrown the other members of the cartel need the Saudis more than the Saudis need the cartel. This is a big win for the consuming nations and the health of the global economy.

The market is reacting more on the uncertainty of the situation and perhaps the Department of Energy oil inventory report which probably has as much to do with where oil ended up as the OPEC cold war.

The Energy Information Agency reported a larger than expected increase in U.S. commercial crude oil inventories of 4.8 million barrels yet gasoline surprised on the upside as they reported that gasoline inventories increased by 2.2 million barrels last week and are in the upper limit of the average range. Distillate fuel inventories increased by 0.8 million barrels last week and are in the upper limit of the average range for this time of year.

A report that the White House was bumbling something about releasing oil from the strategic petroleum reserve shows that they are not only clueless on how to fix the economy but don't realize how their anti-energy policies have caused oil and gasoline prices to surge. Not to mention the White House Libyan policy for better or worse.

Drilling moratoriums and the administration's fixation on politically connected alternative fuels is helping feed the recent run in oil. Add to that a budget that is in disarray and the administrations unwillingness to rein in spending is killing the dollar and adding to the cost of a barrel of oil. In the mean time the products are getting some relief on refinery restarts. Natural gas should come in today around 78 bcfs.