A few gutsy members of Congress, led by Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), are trying to force President Carter into a token refilling of the nation's strategic petroleum reserve.
If they succeed, a dribble of 100,000 barrels a day will move into the stockpile, far below the 400,000 to 500,000 barrels a day that Sen. Bradley feels are necessary to provide minimum security against the interruption of supplies from the Middle East.
Adding 100,000 barrels a day would be better than nothing, which is and has been the situation ever since the United States stopped building the reserve stockpile in November 1978. At that time, the Iranian revolution temporarily skewed world oil markets.
Last summer, Saudi Sheikh Zaki Amani warned that if the United States resumed buying any oil for reserves, the Saudis would cut out the extra 1 million barrels a day they had been producing since the beginning of the Iranian crisis. President Carter meekly backed off.
The Strategic Petroleum Reserve Office (SPRO) says it is holding 93 million barrels, a bare two weeks' supply. The present physical capacity is 250 million barrels, which would take more than four years to fill at a rate of 100,000 barrels a day.
The original goal of the legislation setting up SPRO was one billion barrels, which could stretch (in a supply interruption) to cover six months' worth of imports.
SPRO is not a solution to the energy problem, but one key element to many necessary initiatives. But the resistance organized by the Saudis is strong and persistent. Frederick Dutton, a Washington lawyer who represents Saudi interests, pulled no punches in explaining his client's position on National Public Radio recently.
"Why should they pull it out of the ground for us to put it into the ground?" Dutton asked. "If it's going to be in the ground, why not leave it where it was . . . where obviously they would have the primary control over it?"
DUTTON continued: "What you have underlying this, in my personal opinion, is the Arab-Israeli conflict, and we should all be candid about it . . .
"The pressure to raise the strategic oil reserve question is an attempt to say (to the Arabs), 'We should have your oil or the equivalent so that we could then go back and do something in your part of the world, not ours, that is profoundly objectionable to Arab society.'"
If the administration helps pressure Israel into giving up the disputed territories taken in the 1967 war, "there shouldn't be any problem in geting the Saudis and everybody else to do something about getting backup (oil) supplies," Dutton added.
What it boils down to is that the Saudis, according to Dutton, believe that without a SPRO, U.S. policy vis-a-vis Isreal would necessarily be more hostile.
But can Carter accept such a position?
The correct way to look at SPRO is stated by Sen. Bradley. He observes, simply, that with only two weeks' worth of oil in reserve, the United States is at the mercy of any interruption in oil supplies. As everyone knows, Middle East oil is highly vulnerable to accident, sabotage, and foreign threats to the Gulf area.
The risk of carrying an inadequate strategic reserve, Sen. Bradley says, "is simply not acceptable." A high administration official, whose identity cannot be revealed, concedes privately: "We must start again on SPRO sometime. The Saudis merely interpret our attitude as weakness. We must tell them what we intend to do, and go ahead and do it. They probably would respect us more for it."
CONGRESS HAS taken matters in its own hands, authorizing the money for 100,000 barrels a day to put into SPRO from the government's Elk Hills reserve. Bradley and Johnston -- in whose states' salt domes the oil is stored -- worked out language that would bar the use of Elk Hills oil for any other purpose.
That should force Carter to put the oil into SPRO, for his only other option would be an irrational decision to shut down Elk Hills production.
But high sources say that Carter really does not want to restart SPRO until he feels sure that the action will not jeopardize the Saudi production level. Many congressmen assume that under terms of proposed legislation, the president won't have any real options except to reactivate the reserve. But given the Saudi counter-pressures, Congress will have to keep the heat on the White House.