The softening of prices was mitigated by the fact that traders had already begun factoring in the OPEC move to roll over production quotas at 24.5 million barrels a day (b/d). Ahead of the gathering in Vienna, ministers queued up to signal their intentions. ‘Markets seem to be discounting an unchanged scenario for the OPEC meeting and the focus now seems to be rapidly shifting to what the cartel plans to do next,’ said US-based Man Energy in its daily market report on 3 December.

However, producers signalled their fears of a looming supply glut by scheduling an extraordinary meeting for 10 February to reassess market conditions. Anxiety on the part of producers about a counter-seasonal replenishment of inventories was fuelled by US Department of Energy data released on 3 December. Petrol and heating oil, the products driving the market, both built in the week to 28 November. Petrol stocks were up 1.8 per cent to 197.1 million barrels while heating oil supplies rose 2.7 per cent to 75.4 million barrels. Crude stocks declined marginally. More bullish sentiment was created by a cold snap in the US in early December, bringing to an end the Indian summer Americans had been enjoying.

Two recurring sources of supply disruption in 2003 reared their heads again in late November. In Nigeria, seven foreign oil workers were kidnapped in the volatile Niger Delta region. They were released on 1 December but the incident highlighted the problems for oil companies operating in the country.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is refusing to accept the results of a petition demanding a referendum on his rule. His opponents claim they have enough signatures to force the vote. Chavez accuses them of fraud. Venezuela has not met its OPEC quota since political clashes at the turn of the year.