From the poorest of Africa to the United States and big business, a breakneck rally that could take oil to $200 a barrel is likely to inflict pain on everyone.

The world was remarkably resilient to a series of record prices in 2007, but a roughly 30 percent rise since the end of last year, with predictions of more to come, is harder to absorb.

The key issue is the rate of change. The recent exponential rise is unhealthy for everyone, a senior executive from a major oil company said. He declined to be named.

On the first trading day of 2008, oil prices hit the $100 a barrel level, which once seemed unimaginable.

The price topped $125 a barrel on Friday, making a rise to $150 probable and to $200 possible, according to OPEC ministers and investment bankers alike.

If current conditions continue, reaching a period when oil is supplied at $200 a barrel is not out of reach, Iran's Oil Minister Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari said this week.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs said the possibility of $150-$200 a barrel over the next six-to-24 months was increasingly likely. The bank was one of the first to point to a triple-digit oil price more than two years ago.

Oil at $200 a barrel would mean roughly $6.50 a gallon for U.S. gasoline, according to figures from Standard Life. It makes the record $3.61 U.S. consumers are now paying seem cheap.

Already, the U.S. consumer has begun to retrench.

I think we've reached the point now where we're starting to see significant responses from consumers, said Jim Hamilton, professor at the University of California in San Diego, adding oil prices were one of the factors that placed the U.S. economy at the risk of recession.

Whatever pain the U.S. feels, it is less than that endured in Africa, where the benefits of international aid to its non-oil producing countries have been wiped out by increased oil costs, a study by the International Energy Agency found at the end of last year.

For emerging economies, an ever bigger burden is financing subsidies their populations consider a birthright.

Major consumer countries like India and China are spending billions of dollars to keep transport costs low, while some smaller players, such as Syria, have decided to stop paying up.


For all big business, including oil companies, soaring fuel costs can cut profits.

The main difference from the oil crisis of the mid 1970s is that the world is less energy intensive and better at adapting, but its efforts are beginning to eat into growth as firms scramble to reduce the costs, such as wages, they can contain.

The speed of adapting to high oil prices has been gathering pace ... and will no doubt intensify if the oil price continues to rise, said Richard Batty of Standard Life.

However, higher oil prices on a multi-year view remain a hit to corporate margins.

Among the first to suffer are airlines, some of which are facing bankruptcy because of higher fuel costs.

The big oil companies have enjoyed record earnings, but they are also paying a price.

Exploration and production will benefit from higher prices and the stock market value of shares, said a senior oil industry executive. Refining profits will struggle because consumption will decrease and margins will be lower.

Oil companies are scarred by the memory of the price crash that followed the rally of the 1970s when heavy investment in production flooded the market with new supplies.

This time they have been slower to bring on more oil and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has also been cautious about increasing output.

It has held its production targets steady since late last year and resisted a plea from top consumer the United States to raise output when it last met in March.

The group has repeatedly said supplies are adequate and that the market has been driven by speculation.

According to that logic, adding more oil would not halt the rally, but others say it could send a powerful signal.

This week, just before U.S. President George Bush heads to the world's biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia, OPEC felt the need to issue a statement reassuring the market again there was enough oil, but saying it would act if necessary.

The market needs something from OPEC and raising supplies could ease the price, an OPEC insider said. The comment was the first in months to depart from the group's line that the market's momentum was a result of factors beyond its control.

OPEC countries are expected to earn more than a $1 trillion this year from oil exports, the U.S. government has forecast, but they too are wary of demand destruction.

If prices continue to rise at the current rate, that possibility becomes more like a probability, with every $10 rise in oil knocking about 0.25 percent off gross domestic product in developed countries, according to analysts' rule of thumb.

It is not in their (OPEC's) interest to be one of the causes of a major world economic slowdown, Batty said.