By Olesya Astakhova, Denis Pinchuk and Dmitry Zhdannikov
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia said on Wednesday it was prepared to push oil production to historic highs, just days after a global deal to freeze output levels collapsed and Saudi Arabia threatened to flood markets with more crude.
Venezuela predicted prices could crash in the next few weeks if producers failed to resume dialogue and urged that non-OPEC participants be observers at a June OPEC meeting, as the specter of oversupply loomed once more.
OPEC member Venezuela and top non-OPEC producer Russia had been the main proponents of the output freeze deal, in the making since February, until it collapsed on Sunday in Doha after Riyadh said it would not sign unless Iran took part.
The deal had been meant to help the market rebalance by removing a large chunk of oversupply and a stockpile glut.
But Saudi Arabia said it could jack up output instead - by as much as 2 million barrels a day to over 12 million, which would allow it to overtake Russia as the world's largest producer.
"They (Saudis) have the ability to raise output significantly. But so do we," Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak told journalists on the sidelines of an international energy conference in Moscow.
He said Russia was "in theory" able to raise production to 12 million or even 13 million bpd from current record levels of close to 11 million bpd.
Russian oil output has repeatedly surprised on the upside over the past decade, rising from as low as 6 million bpd at the turn of the millennium. Oil experts have repeatedly predicted an unavoidable decline but it has yet to happen.
Oil prices crashed to below $30 per barrel in January from as high as $115 in mid-2014 after Saudi Arabia decided to raise output to drive higher-cost producers such as the United States out of the market.
The kingdom, OPEC's de facto leader and the world's top exporter, has been pumping unprecedented volumes above 10 million bpd for a year.
Saudi Arabia says it has enough spare capacity to push output to more than 12 million bpd. It has never tested such levels, however, hence the market has little insight about its ability to do so.
"Of course they (Saudis) can increase output. They have been steeply raising drilling volumes recently," said Lukoil Chief Executive Vagit Alekperov, whose firm has been drilling for gas in Saudi Arabia.
Adding to the glut, Iran said it was determined to raise output to regain market share after the lifting of Western sanctions on the Islamic Republic in January.
NEW PRICE CRASH
Alekperov said Russia's government needed to approve new legislation to ease the tax burden on mature fields in Western Siberia and encourage exploration of other regions, otherwise raising production would be impossible.
"Our industry is at a very mature stage of development. We haven't launched a single new oil province since the end of the Soviet Union except for Northern Caspian," Alekperov told a panel with Novak.
Saudi Arabia has one of the lowest costs of oil extraction and its oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, has long argued that Russian output would soon fall because of ageing fields.
Alekperov said he believed oil prices had bottomed and should hover at around $50 a barrel this year, rising from 2017, because of a looming deficit as investment in crude production had fallen too steeply and too fast.
But Venezuelan Oil Minister Eulogio Del Pino said prices could crash and that discussions needed to restart.
The country's proposal "for now" is that non-OPEC producers who participated in the Doha meeting attend a June OPEC meeting as observers.
"And we can renew discussions," Del Pino told Reuters. "I anticipate that, without a deal, prices from now to OPEC will drop and it's not the same to sit down at the table with Brent at $43 per barrel as it is when it's below $30.”
"We are close to 90 percent of inventory levels already. ... We could see a steep fall in oil prices in the next few weeks," Del Pino told the same panel with Novak.
With global supply still exceeding demand by 1.5 million to 2 million bpd, producers in and outside the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries have no other option but to resume dialogue, Del Pino said.
Novak said he was unsure whether OPEC could reach a consensus before its next meeting in about six weeks' time. "This is a hard task which the countries undertook - to agree by June".
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov; Editing by Dale Hudson and Peter Cooney)