In the debate over oil company profits, the industry usually acts as though world oil prices would be no different if there was no OPEC cartel.

Oil company executives argue that whatever world price is dictated by theOrganization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is the right price for oil produced and sold in the United States. Holding prices down through controls or cutting oil company profits through added taxes only mean that less can be spent on the search for oil, they say.

"Why should the U.S be willing to pay that price to OPEC instead of letting us have the money so we can produce more oil here?" is a typical puzzled query from executives at one oil company after another.

Many of the critics of Big Oil - a group that today probably includes the vast majority of Americans - are convinced that the industry has engineered an artificial shortage that will go away as soon as prices are high enough. They remember the industry's promise of only a few years ago that there would be an abundance of oil, of alternatives to it, if only the price were $5 a barrel, of $7, or $12.

The industry as a whole is getting prices like that, orices far higher than it expected when it made investments to find the oil being produced today. But there is not even an adequate supply of oil, much less an abundance. Why should the companies get to keep all that money - "unearned and undeserved," as President Carter labels it - if they either can't or won't come up with more oil? the critics keep asking.

Take those opposing views, add a widespread desire to insulate the poor from higher energy prices, throw in a large dash for demogofuery and you've got a political stew that will keep bubbling for years.

The one thing that it not likely to emerge from that pot is a national policy toward oil prices that make any economic sense.

To find such a policy, the questions the debaters and the demogoguery ought to be addressing are these:

What is the best set of policies to limit economic damage that OPEC can do to the U.S.?

How much future oil and gas production would be lost, if oil price controls were continued?

How much more oil and gas, if any, wuld be used by the Anericans driving their cars and heating their homes if were left in place?

What is the most efficient way to protect the poor from the ravages of skyrocketing energy prices?

None of these questions has anything to do with the oil companies "deserve." Instead, they address the fact that OPEC does exist and that, because of that cartel, oil prices are higher everywhere than they otherwise would be.

Jack Bennett, senior vice president of Exxon and a former Treasury under secretary of momentary affairs, doesn't take kindly to the notion that his industry is gettinga windfall courtesy of OPEC.

A lot of people have made investments in the past that have turned out better than expected, Bennett said. "Maybe we ought to apply that logic to casinos in Atlantic City and farms in Kansas."

Bennett, reading from internal Exxon analyses of future oil prices done in 1970, noted that his company was making investments in the Persian Gulf area even then only if could expect a very high return because of unsettled conditions in the region.

The implication of continuing oil price controls in the U.S. or of taxing away part of coming price increases is that "we have to build in a considerable discount" on price expectations, Bennett said.

"Sure, there's lots of incentive, but hell, it's a matter of degree," he continued. "Offshore, if we will make smaller lease (bonus) payments. . .how much we spend for secondary and tertiary recovery." And with lower price expectations some areas, such as the Bering Straight, might not be drilled at all, he warned.

"Sure, there's lots of incentive, but, hell, it's a matter of degree," he continued. "Offshore, if we expect less, we will make smaller lease (bonus) payments . . . Here in the U.S., it's a matter of degree . . . how much we spend for secondary and tertiary recovery." And with lower price expectations, some areas, such as the Bering Straight, might not be drilled at all, he warned.

It is a matter of degree. Some future production undoubtedly will be lost if controls were continued or a windfall tax slapped on. But how much?

The industry, and probably its critics, won't agree readily, but it is entirely possible to spend so much money on the search for oil that it really isn't worth it. For instance, last year 45,000 wells were drilled in the U.S., and under the pressure of such high demand for drill rigs and oil-country equipment, the cost of a well has soared.

Moreover, all that drilling has not produced great additions to U.S. oil and gas reserves. Beginning in 1972, when prices started to rise, the industry's "finding rate"-the number of barrels of oil or cubic feet of gas added to reserves per foot drilled-has slumped.

No one is quite sure why the finding rate is down, but there are several plausible explanations. One thing is sure, however. Any calculation of how much money the oil industry "needs" to find a given amount of oil is highly dependent on the finding rate one picks.

That is one reason for the big variation in the half dozen or so estimates of the money needs of the oil industry made by the Department of Energy, different banks and oil industry groups in the last few years. Guesses about the future finding rate ranged from a low of 15 barrels of oil (or its equivalent in natural gas) for each foot drilled to a high-from the DOE-of 26 1/2 barrels.

All estimates about the capital needs of the industry have to be taken with a large grain of salt. Consider just two:

President Carter's National Energy Plan released two years ago concluded that from 1978 to 1985 the oil industry would need $222 billion (measured in constant 1977 dollars) to add 45.7 billion barrels of oil and its natural gas equivalent to the nation's reserves.

But a study by the Energy Economics Division of Chase Manhattan Bank determined that to add 55.3 billion barrels of oil and its natural gas equivalent over a one-year-longer period, 1977 to 1985, would take $493 billion.

By any standard, those are large numbers. And by any standard, that is a big difference. But relative to what the industry has been spending, even Chase's figures do not seem so huge.

In the last two years, just the 26 largest oil companies spent $49.2 billion on capital expenditures, measured in the same 1977 dollars Chase was using. This number is not comparable to Chase's because it covers worldwide spending, not just U.S. spending, and it includes investments in other things such as chemical plants. But it does not include the portion of exploration and development costs that are written off as current expenses rather than an investment, which Chase thinks is about 40 percent of the total cost of finding oil and gas.

The point of noting that $49.2 billion figure is to suggest that all the big numbers being thrown about have to be related to what already is being done.

Of course, the industry need for capital is a moving target. The American Gas Association, for example, was saying a year ago that companies with natural gas pipelines and other facilities for handling gas would need about $200 billion for new investments in the next 20 years. A few weeks ago, that had jumped to $302 billion.

Or take the testimony of Jack Allen, president of Alpar Resources, an independent oil company in Perryton, Texas. Speaking on behalf of the Independent Petroleum Association of America-which wants decontrol but no new taxes-Allen told the House Ways and Means Committee this month that the U.S. "can and must double present drilling in the 1980's."

The IPAA would like to drill at least 80,000 wells a year.

Between 1973 and 1978, the number of wells drilled jumped from 26,590 to 46,930. The number of active drill rigs nearly doubled, and the proportion of rigs actually "making hole" rose from 83 percent to about 98 percent.

By the IPAA's own estimates, that big increase in demand produced a 132 percent rise in drilling contractors' charges, and an overall doubling of the cost of a well. Prices generally rose about 45 percent over the same five years.

Since soaring oil prices already have sent everybody who could scrounge a rig out to punch holes in the ground, how much more incentive is needed?

The incentives were adequate in the case of one of the more expensive recent investment decisions by the industry, bidding for federal leases in the Baltimore Canyon area and drilling there. Yet John Bookout, president of Shell Oil Co., acknowledges that world oil prices are already $2 to $3 a barrel higher than his company expected for 1979 when it was plotting the likely future course of prices to help it decide what to bid and how much to spend drilling offshore in the Atlantic.

President Carter has proposed a windfall tax to capture for the public part of any future price increases set by OPEC that are reflected in the price of uncontrolled U.S. oil. The companies would get to keep, on average, about 30 cents of each added dollar, but they still oppose the tax.

Given all of these factors-the apparent adequacy of incentives, the big increase in drilling, the lower finding rate, the likelihood of continued big OPEC price increases and the present large amount of cash already flowing to the oil industry - it is not hard to conclude that Carter's tax probably would not reduce oil production by all that much in a given future year.

But the question of whether oil prices should be decontrolled, as opposed to whether new taxes should be levied that would limit oil profits, does not turn just on how large a return one thinks the companies should make to produce an adequate, efficient search for oil.

The regulations necessary to run oil price controls are transferring large amounts of money from one oil company to another, as well as from oil companies to consumers. There are special breaks for "independent" oil producers as opposed to the majors. There are breaks for small refiners so generous that people have quit larger companies, borrowed money to construct an inefficient "tin-pot" refinery and made enormous profits.

Because the price of oil found before 1973 has been controlled so rigidly-it still sells for less than $6-many companies have not made the investments needed to keep up production from these older fields. In many cases they would have lost money doing so.

Decontrol would get rid of all those special breaks, and it would quickly lead to more production from old fields, though there is a dispute about how much more oil would be pumped. The estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000 barrels a day.

But perhaps most importantly, oil customers of all kinds would be sent the right signals about the true price of oil these days. Higher prices do cause businesses and households to use less energy, even though opponents of decontrol keep asserting the contrary.

Since 1973, as the economy has grown, it has taken only about seventenths of a unit of energy to produce each additional unit of output. Before the big price rises that year, it took a full unit of energy for each addition to the output of goods and services.

Finally, opponents of decontrol, such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), say that it is not fair to poor Americans to make them pay more for energy as they would have to do with decontrol.

The only problem with that approach to transferring income from the oil companies to the poor is that it also transfers a lot to the majority of Americans who are not poor, including those who are downright rich.

If the poor need help, this can be done in a variety of more efficient ways, including using part of the proceeds from a windfall tax for grants to them, as President Carter has proposed.

This series of articles has attempted to examine some of the facts and some of the myths about the oil industry and how it has behaved over the last decade in order to illuminate issues in the decontrol debate. That examination showed that oil profits are not as high as most people think, but that they have been plenty high enough to finance a massive, costly search for oil.

Unfortunately, the search so far hasn't turned up enough oil and gas to put much of a brake on OPEC. In arguing that the oil industry should get the lion's share of the OPEC-induced higher prices in the U.S., its spokesmen seem to hold out the promise that the future will be different.

There's small likelihood, though, that the future will be all that different. Certainly there is still a great deal of oil to be found, but hardly enough to unseat the OPEC cartel.

Instead of dealing with facts, the opposing forces mostly continue to shout at each other, with the oil companies convinced that energy policy is being shaped largely on the basis of spite and distrust. In fact, many Americans do think the companies have either have conspired with OPEC to put the world in this fix or at least have not done their job and gotten the world out of it. And a great many politicians are catering to that view these days.

The political stew pot bubbles on. CAPTION: Graph, The Incentive to Search, By Bill Perkins-The Washington Post