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World: Oil Prices Stabilize -- But Concern Over Yukos Remains

News from Russia on 28 July that a court order had blocked exports by the beleaguered energy giant Yukos sent world oil prices to new highs. Oil traders say the market is already unstable over the war in Iraq and concern about terrorism in Saudi Arabia -- and news that Russia's biggest oil producer could be shut down only made things worse. Prices stabilized on 29 July after a Russian Justice Ministry official said the order would not affect the company's oil exports, but traders remain on edge.

Prague, 29 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- World oil prices were reported stable on 29 July after the Russian Justice Ministry said a court order the previous day would not affect the ability of Yukos to export oil.

Oil prices soared to record levels on news of the order, which appeared to prohibit Yukos from selling its oil as a way of compelling the company to pay back taxes. Yukos is Russia's biggest oil producer -- and Russia is the world's second-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia.

The Justice Ministry today tried to clarify the order, saying it "in no way" would affect Yukos's ability to produce or sell oil. Yukos later confirmed that exports would continue.

Phil Flynn, an oil trader at the Alaron trading company in the U.S. city of Chicago, said he's concerned prices could still rise above the 28 July record of over $43 a barrel.

"I think if this Yukos situation continues to deteriorate or continues to stay uncertain, I think the prices will stay above 40 dollars a barrel for the foreseeable future. Whether or not we get to 50 dollars will probably depend on whether or not anything else goes wrong. We can't afford for anything else to go wrong," Flynn said.

Russian authorities have accused Yukos of failing to pay some $3.4 billion in back taxes for the year 2000, and up to $10 billion in arrears for the years 2000 to 2003. The company has said it doesn't have the cash available to pay the bill and could go bankrupt.

Company officials and the government are reportedly in talks to avoid bankruptcy. But -- so far -- Yukos says the government appears unwilling to compromise.

Russia's status on world oil markets has risen as demand for oil from developing countries like India and China grows and supplies have tightened.

The OPEC oil cartel -- which Russia does not belong to -- is now producing at near-total capacity. Observers had been looking to Russia as a potential source of additional output.

To be sure, a Yukos bankruptcy would likely have only a short-lived affect on world oil supplies. Even if the company is forced to liquidate, the Russian government or the company's new owners would certainly act quickly to restore output. Other Russian producers could also step in to compensate.

David Fyfe monitors oil supply at the Paris-based International Energy Agency. In a telephone conversation with RFE/RL on 29 July, he declined to comment on the longer-term impact of the Yukos affair. But he says his organization is looking at the situation closely.

"We await clarification of precisely what is going to be required in terms of Yukos operations. And we wouldn't speculate on how much oil we are going to lose -- if any -- until we know what that situation is," Fyfe said.

Reports say oil prices are not likely to slide very far even if the Yukos situation is clarified soon.

Reuters reports U.S. government data released this week -- the peak of the summer driving season -- show U.S. demand now at a record high. The United States is the world's biggest oil importer. U.S. refineries are pumping at near 100-percent capacity.

Oil prices have risen to new highs this year following the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq that has seen that country's oil infrastructure frequently sabotaged. Additionally, terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia -- the world's biggest oil producer -- has raised questions about the security of that country's supplies.

OPEC producers say they hope to see oil prices drop to around $25 to $30 a barrel. But analysts say the terror threat alone adds at least 8 dollars a barrel to that price.
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.