Some of the world’s biggest oil-producing countries have reduced their investment in new capacity despite record oil prices. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries this week revealed its members drilled 6.5 per cent fewer wells in 2003, suggesting the global supply crunch and high oil prices could last longer than expected, analysts said. The numbers appear to contradict statements by Opec members that they are actively building extra capacity.

“Oil demand has been booming since quarter one 2003, offering Opec – along with rising oil prices – a clear enough signal of tightening market conditions, which the organisation seems to disregard,” the Centre for Global Energy Studies (CGES), a London-based consulting firm, said recently.

“Opec has tried to get prices to stay high and now with nearly two years of very strong demand for oil we are really capacity constrained,” said Leo Drollas, CGES deputy executive director and chief economist.

Opec’s latest annual statistical report, published this week, shows that the number of wells completed in 2003 fell by more than 10 per cent in Kuwait, Venezuela, Qatar, Nigeria and Iran.

Opec members rarely give out complete data on the amount of money they invest in their oil industry, viewing it as a national strategic secret. Information on the number of oil wells completed per year is one of the best rough guides to future oil production as well as to overall investment trends.

Part of the explanation, in particular for Nigeria and Qatar, lies in the fact that companies are drilling fewer but more sophisticated wells. In Iran, Kuwait and Venezuela, investment has been stifled by political disagreements and leaders’ eagerness to spend the additional petrodollars on other investments or the enrichment of a powerful minority. But as big consumers such as the US become more desperate for oil, the pressure is growing for countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to open their doors to international oil companies.

Mohammad Hadi Nejad Hosseinian, Iran’s deputy oil minister, blamed Opec’s lack of investment on past weak oil prices. “Most Opec countries have been unable to supply extra oil as a result of inadequate investment during the period when oil prices were weak,” he said. “Iran expects to rely heavily on foreign investments to implement its ambitious plans [to increase oil production by nearly 2m b/d].”

Opec’s capacity has remained at about 31.5m b/d since autumn 2000, though demand increased by 6m b/d and prices recovered from the Asian crisis of the late 1990s during that time, the CGES said. During that time almost three-quarters of the increased capacity needed to satisfy the extra demand came from outside Opec.

But ageing fields, a difficult investment climate in Russia and a dearth of discoveries in other parts of the world mean that consumers will not be able to rely on countries outside Opec for additional oil.

Meanwhile, US demand, which is expected to grow 4 per cent in the next four years, and that of China, forecast to increase 30 per cent, mean the world could be in for a longer period of high oil prices than expected, analysts said.

The International Energy Agency, the Paris-based industry watchdog, expects Opec capacity, excluding Iraq and Venezuela, to grow 2.1m b/d in 2005-2007. But work to achieve this does not appear to have begun.

It can take two years for countries to act on higher oil prices, but this time countries hurt by past boom and bust cycles appear to be taking longer. Opec’s hesitancy means it has squandered its spare capacity, the trump card that allows it to play the role of the world’s central bank of oil. It has also increased the likelihood that prices will fall only after they have climbed enough to stifle economic growth and, therefore, demand.