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Saudi predicts new oil spike amid investment fears


ROME — Saudi Arabia warned oil prices could spike to beyond the near $150 (U.S.) record high of 2008 within two to three years, as energy leaders on Monday decried a blow to energy investment because of the financial crisis.

Energy ministers and officials at the Group of Eight energy summit meet in Rome as oil prices hover at a six-month high of over $60 a barrel, but below the $75 a barrel level producers say is needed to spur investment in new production.

Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said the world was heading for a fresh spike after the current phase of faltering demand and lower prices, which he said reflected the economic downturn rather than being an indicator of things to come.

“We are maintaining our long-term focus rather than being swayed by the volatility of short-term conditions,” he said in prepared remarks at the summit.

“However, if others do not begin to invest similarly in new capacity expansion projects, we could see within two-to-three years another price spike similar to or worse than what we witnessed in 2008.”

Low prices and weak demand had discouraged investment in energy projects, while high development costs, tight credit markets and energy policies focused on alternative fuel sources were compounding the problem, Mr. Naimi said.

The Saudi warning was echoed by others at the energy summit that ends on Monday, with a top IMF official also forecasting price spikes over the medium-term following relatively stable markets in the short-term.

“With long time-to-build lags, significant setbacks to oil investment today could set the stage for future sharp price increases,” IMF first deputy managing director John Lipsky said.

He said energy investments were likely to remain subdued in 2010, after an expected decline in 2009. The International Energy Agency predicts investment in oil and gas exploration and production will fall 21 per cent in 2009.

Paolo Scaroni, CEO of Italy's Eni said one solution might be to create a global oil agency representing producers and consumers that would combat price volatility and ensure investments keep flowing into the energy sector.

While major producer and consumer nations debated the right oil price to spur investment without hurting the chances of an economic recovery, the World Bank urged leaders not to forget the poor in Africa.

The G8 energy summit aims at defining a joint strategy to tackle climate change, promoting investment in new projects, spurring dialogue between producers and consumer nations, and boosting energy resources in poorer countries.

It comes ahead of an OPEC meeting on Thursday, when the producer group is expected to keep output levels unchanged as higher oil prices ease concerns about high inventories and a steep fall in demand.

Saudi Arabia's Mr. Naimi has previously said he expects OPEC to “stay the course” when it meets in Vienna, while Algeria has said an output cut is unlikely.

Consumer nations like the United States have urged OPEC to keep its focus on price stability to prevent an oil spike that could derail hopes of an economic recovery.

Producers and consumers ought to agree on a “respectful band” for prices that prevents volatility and allows for investment in the sector, Egypt's oil minister said, echoing the concerns of consumer nations who fear a spike in prices.

“Yes, there is an economic and financial crisis, but in the oil and gas sector you cannot sleep,” Sameh Fahmy told Reuters. “When the high prices come back again what are you going to do?”

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