Oil seems to be a castrophe that dresses in a dozen robes, but it is important to step back from the shadow of the Iran-Iraq war and recognize the fundamental changes that have occurred since the early 1970s. No longer is the world beset by galloping increases in consumption that, oil cartel or no oil cartel, would have produced a price explosion. We are left only with political geography. More than half of the known oil lies in a region that has become the world's tinderbox.
Virtually all that matters now is politics: the strange, unpredictable politics of the oil-producing countries themselves and the global issues -- especially the fate of Israel and the Palestinians -- that the key producers hold important.
But if this contains the seeds of diaster, there remains the possibility -- nothing more -- for modest stability in the 1980s and beyond. Power within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is flowing back toward Saudi Arabia, its largest producer. In the 1970s, it was mostly the abruptness of price changes (increases of 300 percent in 1972 and 1974 and 150 percent in 1978 and 1980) that induced world recession. If the Saudis regain control of prices, they may orchestrate steady annual increases that do not smother economic growth.
To say this is to recognize the legacy of the 1970s. We like our crises simple, our villains clear. We have blamed every oil problem either on the oil companies or OPEC. But go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s and you will see that oil consumption was increasing at 7 percent rate annually. That means doubling consumption every 10 years: from 17 billion barrels in 1970 to 50 billion in 1985. At 1970 prices of less that $2 a barrel, the capacity wasn't there. Supply and demand were bound to collide. OPEC exploited this situation, but did not create it.
Now things are vastly different. Within a range of $5 to $10 a barrel, no one can justify a given OPEC price. They're fixed by ministers, not markets. But the underlying price increase of the 1970s -- caused by fear of scarcity, not OPEC -- seems to be doing the essential economic job of inducing conservation, bringing more costly supplies into production and forcing customers to use other fuels.
This could make a big difference for the 1980s. As old fields decline, it's possible that world oil production never will exceed its 1979 level of 23 billion barrels. But that could be enough oil to avoid a permanent economic bottleneck that stifles growth. Oil savings may be greatest in industrial countries, where they have the least impact on economic growth; discoveries may be greatest in developing countries that most need fuel for expansion.
Unlike the reaction after the 1972 to 1974 price boosts, governments increasingly have decided not to shield consumers from the effects of higher prices. The biggest change occurred in the United States, where price controls are being lifted from most domestically produced oil. Gasoline consumption this year is down 11 percent from 1978 levels and, as more smaller cars are introduced, may drop more.
Contrary to popular wisdom, similar (though less impressive) savings are probable in Europe and Japan. Virtually all auto manufacturers have plans for new models with better mileage. In Japan, minicars getting up to 60 miles a gallon last year captured 6 percent of sales.
As for discoveries, oil already has been found in several developing countries -- Benin, Chad, Niger and Sudan -- that aren't producers. The World Bank thinks that oil-importing developing countries could increase annual production from about 700 million barrels now to 1.3 billion by 1990.
The most impressive thing about the new oil arithmetic is that existing supplies of conventional oil should last a half century or more. Today's "proven" reserves total about 640 billion barrels, or about 28 years at 1979 producton levels. But there's a lot more oil to be found. One estimate cited recently by the World Bank put the amount at 1.9 trillion barrels. If actual discoveries totaled only one-third of that, they still would provide another 25 to 30 years of consumption.
What all this means is that in a world of greedy but friendly nations, oil gradually would fade as a problem. In addition to conventional oil supplies, there are trillions of barrels of known reserves of shale, tar sands and heavy oils. At higher prices, these slowly will be brought into production to supplement and replace oil.
The Iran-Iraq war simply reminds us, of course, that nations are not entirely friendly or stable. The war hasn't yet caused a shortage because a huge surplus of producing capacity exists today -- the result of higher prices and world recession. If the war doesn't damage Iran's or Iraq's industry permanently, the surplus will remain, and the Saudis (with one-quarter of the known world reserves) increasingly will be able to manipulate it. By maintaining production, they can give the world breathing room; by cutting back, they can sustain a starvation fuel diet.
Opportunities for mischance, mischief and chaos abound. Even if OPEC adopts a formula for regualr price changes -- in contrast to the spurts of the 1970s -- the formula may create oppressive increases, matched by corresponding production declines. Even a 3 percent "real" increase would leave surplus revenues of more than $500 billion in 1985. Can the world's financial system "recycle" such sums?
No one knows. But the greatest unknown involves the virtual certainty that the Saudis increasingly will link the price and availability of their oil to Western (and particularly U.S.) policies on Israel. To expect them to do otherwise is naive because, if nothing else, it would expose them to radical subversion. But their position is no less delicate than ours. Given their staunch anticommunism, they also want to keep their ties with the West.
With the smoke of war still drifting over the Middle East, no prediction is safe but one: The West would be more secure if it took the acts of self-preservation dictated by common sense. Dare one mention a gasoline tax?