Oil group faces biggest meeting in 20 years as in-fighting and a US resurgence curb its ability to hold prices.

It wouldn't be the first time the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries has met in an atmosphere of deep division, bordering on outright hatred.

In 1976, Saudi Arabia's former Oil Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani stormed out of the Opec gathering early when other members of the cartel wouldn't agree to the wishes of his new master, King Khaled.

Opec's 166th meeting in Vienna this week looks as if it could end in a similarly acrimonious fashion with Saudi Arabia and several other members at loggerheads over what to do about falling oil prices.

Whatever action Opec agrees to take to halt the sharp decline in the value of crude, experts agree that one thing is clear: the world is entering an era of lower oil prices that the group is almost powerless to change.

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This new energy paradigm may result in oil trading at much lower levels than the US$100 ($126.79) a barrel consumers have grown used to paying over the past decade and reshape the entire global economy.

It could also trigger the eventual break-up of Opec, the group of mainly Middle East producers, which due to its control of 60 per cent of the world's petroleum reserves has often been accused of acting like a cartel.

Even worse, some experts warn a prolonged period of lower oil prices could reshape the entire political map of the Middle East, triggering a new wave of political uprisings in petrodollar sheikhdoms in the Gulf, which depend on the income from crude to underwrite their high levels of public spending and support less wealthy client states in the Arab world.

"We are now entering a new era in world oil and we will have lower prices for some time to come," says Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Quest: Energy Security and the Remaking of the Modern World. "Oil was really the last commodity in the super-cycle to remain standing."

The gathering is being called Opec's most important in more than 20 years. Oil ministers from its 12 member states face their biggest challenge since the depths of the financial crisis at the beginning of 2009, as bearish sentiment and oversupply grips the market. Brent crude prices have fallen by almost 30 per cent since reaching their high point for the year of US$115 a barrel in June.

"The oil market is being redefined by two factors. First, the astonishing growth in US oil production ... Secondly, the realisation that the world economy is much weaker than was previously expected so demand is being squeezed," says Yergin, who also sits on the United States Secretary of Energy Advisory Board.

The fall in prices comes as Opec's domination of the world oil market is being challenged seriously for the first time in more than 30 years by the unexpected and sudden resurgence of the US as a major producer. By 2020, Citigroup reckons the US will be pumping more than 14 million barrels a day (bpd) of oil and petroleum liquids, giving it the capacity to export almost 5 million bpd, which would transform the markets.

Lifting the ban on US crude oil exports, which first came into force in the 1970s to ensure energy security, is becoming an ever more likely move by Washington as it seeks to apply pressure on Russia's President Vladimir Putin to back down over Ukraine. Energy advisers IHS say such a move would further stimulate growth in domestic production and cut America's existing import bill by US$67 billion, a figure not far from Britain's expenditure on defence.

"They recognise that the threat from North American supply is a challenge to Opec today just like the North Sea was in the 1980s," says Yergin. "Opec is going to have a very hard time adjusting to this because there isn't agreement within the group on what to do. Everyone is happy for Saudi Arabia to cut production but the Saudis don't want to cut and lose more market share, especially to Iran and Iraq."

Opec nations are producing about 200,000 bpd more than their agreed quota of 30 million bpd, while demand for the group's oil is expected to fall as low as 29.2 million bpd next year, as more North American supply becomes available. To balance supply with demand would suggest Opec will have to agree to cut up to 1 million bpd from its production and the responsibility for delivering this will fall mainly to Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom is the world's biggest and cheapest exporter and because of its ability to immediately pump up to 12.5 million bpd is viewed as the "swing" producer within Opec and the world. If the group is to agree cuts, that will mean Riyadh will have to make the biggest contribution to the overall reductions and surrender more market share to its rivals within the group such as Iran and Iraq.

Opec owes its existence to a period of great economic and political upheaval in the 1960s, when demand for crude oil began to surge from rapidly growing industrialised economies and producing countries in the Middle East started to emerge as newly independent states.

Created in Baghdad by five original members including Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Venezuela, Opec offered the first real counterbalance to the so-called "seven sisters" of international oil firms such as Shell and BP, which had dominated global supply until then.

The group normally meets a few times every year at its headquarters in Vienna unless an "extraordinary" meeting is called for in response to events such as the Arab Spring in 2010, or the financial crisis. Some members urged such an emergency gathering in response to the current sharp drop in prices but appeals for deep cuts to production have so far been resisted by Saudi Arabia's oil minister, Ali al-Naimi.

Saudi Arabia is the undisputed dominant force within the group, but its power is increasingly being challenged by an axis of Iran and Iraq. Since Saddam Hussein's downfall and the exit of a major US military presence in Iraq, Baghdad has moved closer politically to its Shiite Muslim neighbour Iran. It holds vast oil reserves and plans to produce up to 9 million bpd by the decade's end, despite the threat posed by Islamic State (Isis) militants in its north.

Iran, Saudi Arabia's natural enemy in the Gulf, could also be in a position to boost its capacity significantly, if the West lifts nuclear sanctions restricting international investment in its energy sector.

Both countries need prices to stay high given the weakness of their wider economies and lack of foreign currency reserves, making it likely that they will push for a big cut in Opec production next week.

Iran's oil minister Bijan Zanganeh has already called for emergency bilateral talks with Saudi Arabia to discuss how to accommodate an expected rise in production from Isis.

Then there are the non-aligned countries, including Nigeria, Venezuela, and Angola. They account for a combined 6.6 million bpd of Opec supply and all hold ambitions to boost production. Like Iran and Iraq, they are thought to be pushing for deep cuts to Opec's quota to restore oil prices back to US$100 a barrel.

But Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies appear reluctant to agree. With relatively small populations and vast oil reserves these producers, which form the core of the Gulf Co-operation Council, are largely dependent on Western support for their security in an inherently unstable region.

In this context, Saudi and its allies may be more willing to allow oil prices to fall to about US$70 a barrel to help appease the US by applying economic pressure on Russia, which also depends on crude sales for much of its foreign currency revenue.

But lower oil prices will also pull at the political fabric holding together many of Opec's members, especially in the Middle East.

What's happening in oil markets?

Opec is virtually powerless to halt the plunge in prices amid a surge in North American supplies of crude and deep divisions within the cartel over strategy. North American supply is a challenge to Opec today just like the North Sea was in the 1980s. Russia, heavily dependent on oil revenue, has been hit hard with its currency depreciating against the US dollar by a third this year.

Why doesn't Saudi Arabia cut production?

Opec will later this week decide whether to cut production by 30m barrels a day. The Saudis don't want to cut and lose more market share, especially to Iran and Iraq.

How long can oil prices stay low?

The world is entering a new era in oil and will have lower prices "for some time to come", says Daniel Yergi who sits on the US Secretary of Energy's Advisory Board and is the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Quest: Energy Security and the Remaking of the Modern World.

What does this mean in New Zealand?

Oil prices have fallen faster than the kiwi dollar and this means lower petrol prices at the pump, now below $2 a litre of 91 octane at some places.