* Oil at “sustainable” levels after economic crisis-Naimi
* IEA economist sees $85 crude “strangling” recovery
* Saudi minister warns of political risk to oil spending
(Adds quotes, details)
By Karl Plume and Rebekah Kebede
CHICAGO/NEW YORK, April 28 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia and the International Energy Agency presented differing views on current oil prices on Wednesday, highlighting the potential for a new schism to emerge between consumers and producers as crude tops $80 a barrel.
Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi reiterated that current prices were “more sustainable” as the worst of the economic crisis had passed. He has hailed as “beautiful” an oil price between $70 and $80 that, he says, benefits both producers and consumers.
But Fatih Birol, chief economist at the Paris-based agency that represents the interests of developed energy consuming nations, said separately in New York that crude oil at $85 a barrel, or higher, could “strangle” an economic rebound.
After a period of delicate detente as oil prices wavered between $70 and $80, a divergence of views is reemerging as crude holds above $80 a barrel for the first time since the global economic collapse, when prices crashed from a $147 record high to $33 a barrel at their trough.
“The worst financial and economic crisis in decades is slowly fading and the world is entering a new growth trajectory,” Naimi told the U.S.-Saudi Business Opportunities Forum in Chicago.
“As the oil prices are back to their more sustainable levels, I am more optimistic about the future of energy and oil demand.”
Oil prices have been mostly trading over $80 a barrel since late February, hitting a 2010 high over $86 in early April before sliding down to under $83 a barrel on Wednesday.
Naimi also took the opportunity to warn that politically motivated policies in major oil consuming countries to reduce oil imports or push new forms of energy could put the world’s energy security at risk, a thinly veiled reference to U.S. efforts to wean itself from imported Middle East crude oil.
“It is my sincere hope that often-repeated political statements like reducing oil imports from this or that region are not translated into political actions,” he said.
While Paris-based International Energy Agency has shied away from citing any price range that it believes suitable, Birol warned that oil prices of $85 a barrel or above would hinder economic development.
“If the oil prices stay at this level-- (oil prices of) $85 a barrel and above will be a major risk for strangling the economic recovery efforts, which are very very fragile anyway,” Birol told Reuters on the sidelines of a climate change conference at the United Nations.
High energy prices may also stifle growth in developing countries where high oil prices have pushed energy costs to a record 4.5 percent of GDP, Birol said.
The economist said he was not hopeful an agreement on climate change would come out of talks in Cancun, Mexico set for late November.
“I don’t think the wind is blowing in the right direction,” Birol said. However, passage of U.S. climate legislation would help move a climate deal forward, he said.
Naimi said that Saudi Arabia, the top world oil exporter, holds approximately 12.5 million barrels a day of oil production capacity and a goal of keeping at least 1.5 and 2 million barrels of spare capacity to supply world markets whenever oil demand rises.
Costs of keeping that spare capacity have been rising, Naimi said. To develop a barrel of spare capacity at the Kingdom’s Khurais oil field costs approximately $10,000, Naimi estimated, or double the cost of developing capacity in Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter a decade ago.
Meanwhile, costs of developing spare capacity at the offshore field of Manifa are about triple the levels of a decade ago, the oil minister said.
Saudi Arabia plans to spend $107 billion over the next five years in its upstream and downstream oil and gas sectors, Naimi said.
Current investments in oil production, however, may not be able to meet demand if an economic rebound boosts demand, IEA’s Birol said.
“If as a result of economic recovery, demand continues to grow and if the investment regime is as it is today in four or five years time, we may well see prices which are higher than now,” Birol said, noting that investments in oil production are still well below 2008 levels.
Writing by Joshua Schneyer, Rebekah Kebede and Jonathan Leff in New York. Editing by Carole Vaporean