Why falling oil prices have OPEC over a barrel

Early Thursday morning, around the time that many Americans will begin preparing their Thanksgiving meals, representatives of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries will be meeting in Vienna, Austria. For the dozen countries belonging to OPEC, this meeting could determine how they'll deal with one of the most difficult times for oil cartel in years.

With global oil prices declining dramatically and the U.S. shale oil boom reducing American dependence on foreign energy, a likely response from OPEC would be to cut its production levels to reduce global supply and prop up prices.

But John Kemp, a Reuters market analyst, noted that coming up with a uniform response will be difficult for OPEC because, he wrote, "the slowdown in demand and the shale revolution have had a very different impact from member to member."

Kemp noted that OPEC members Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are currently producing and exporting near-record levels of crude but that other OPEC members are struggling.

Iran, for example, is dealing with international sanctions that have reduced its exports, while insurgencies in Iraq and Libya have created unstable conditions in both those countries. Venezuela is in financial crisis, while Nigeria is dealing with both economic and internal strife.

John Kingston, director of news at Platts, a provider of global energy, petrochemicals, metals and agriculture information, said the statements from OPEC ahead of Thursday's meeting appear designed to keep the global oil markets calm.

"But I really don't know how they're going to resolve this," he told CBS Moneywatch.

One problem, according to Kingston, is overproduction. Reducing production is possible, although "the Saudis are starting to show that they're not willing to bear all the burden of cutbacks," he said, especially because they would have to give up market share of at least a half-million barrels of oil a day.

Another issue is that overall economies of some smaller OPEC members depend heavily on oil production and exports to keep their financial heads above water.

Adding to that mix is that the U.S. and Canada, non-OPEC nations, are producing historic amounts of oil and natural gas at production levels that have changed the global energy equation in ways no one could have imaged just a decade ago.

So, what might come out of the OPEC meeting in Vienna? If the cartel agrees to a production cutback, Kingston said it could nudge U.S. oil and gas prices higher, at least in the short term.

On the other hand, he continued, "if they came out of the meeting and (say), 'we're in total chaos here, there's nothing we can do, it's every man for himself,' I could imagine (oil prices) going down."

A big issue for OPEC, Kingston suggested, is finding a strategy to minimize the effect of the North American oil boom on the global oil market.

"I think right now they would like to cause a lot of pain to North Dakota, and to South Texas," he said. "And the question is, how willing are they to absorb their own pain for a while?"

Kingston noted that oil remains an international market, and that the U.S. is still a net importer of oil, to the tune of about 5 million barrels daily.

"So while certainly some segments of the country could be hurt by a (further) decline in the price of oil ... overall this is nothing but good for the U.S." he added. "And if you're the average American consumer, you might want to lap this one up while you can."