Probably the most important nonevent of the past eight months is this: Iran and Iraq went to war, and the world didn't gasp for oil. Indeed, there's so much oil that petroleum experts and the news media have taken to describing the situation as an "oil glut."
What a dreadful choice of words.
"Glut" means "excessive supply," and that surely doesn't apply to oil. Nothing in the past year has altered the two basic realities of oil. First, it's a wasting resource that now provides nearly half the world's energy. And second, perhaps three-fourths of the known reserves are located in countries whose stability cannot be taken for granted.
To think otherwise is a delusion. But the balance of power between consuming and producing countries is shifting -- just a bit. A "glut" exists in the sense that production exceeds consumption; the excess provides a buffer against large price increases and supply disruptions from political upheavals.
Our interests lie in increasing this buffer, not in yearning for a big break in oil prices. That's what the normal mechanics of supply and demand would dictate: Prices would drop until production capacity and consumption nearly matched. But a big price decline simply would ordain another ride up the roller coaster. Once demand tightened or a revolution knocked out a key supplier, prices would jump sharply again.
The history of oil since the end of World War II is that when surplus capacity doesn't exist, the world is vulnerable to such shocks. The following table is as good a way to view this history as any. Two columns list known oil reserve and annual world consumption (both in billions of barrels). The last column shows how many years reserves would last at prevailing rates of use. [TABLE OMITTED]
Reserve figures are notoriously inexact, but they give a general sense of direction. Between the early 1950s and the late 1960s, discoveries generally outpaced consumption. The big international oil companies dominated the producing countries. The companies decided where production would increase and which countries would receive higher revenues.
But fast economic growth, ambitious selling by oil companies (between 1960 and 1970, oil displaced coal as the world's major fuel) and low prices doomed that. A large price increase was inevitable by the mid-1970s. Demand was simply increasing too fast in relation to known supplies.
Another source of stability vanished simultaneously: The United States lost its ability to act as supplier of last resort. It quickly shifted from a small importer -- but one with the capacity to increase production during emergencies -- to the world's largest importer.
Now the picture is changing modestly. High prices have slowed demand, and discoveries roughly match consumption.
In some respects, the outlook is quite favorable. Although Saudi Arabia is pumping nearly 2 million barrels daily more than its official ceiling (8 1/2 million barrels daily), Iran and Iraq are hardly producing at all (2.5 million barrels daily against a prewar rate of about 6.7 million). If they someday restore production, even Saudi cutbacks would not jeopardize current consumption levels.
And those are still headed down. In the United States, oil consumption is running about a million barrels a day less than a year ago, although the economy has recovered the ground lost in the 1980 recession. In addition, oil companies are maintaining much higher inventories than before the Iran-Iraq war. That's an extra safety cushion.
But none of this will eliminate oil as the world's most precarious political commodity.
What changed in the 1970s was psychology. A psychology of abundance, reinforced by huge discoveries, gave way to a psychology of scarcity. A sense of stability, buttressed by the availability of U.S. oil, gave way to pervasive insecurity. And the power relationships between consuming countries (represented loosely by the giant oil companies) and producers changed accordingly.
As recently as the early 1970s, the major oil companies controlled oil from the well to the pump. Now, according to the Washington newsletter Geopolitics of Energy, the oil-producing countries themselves sell about two-thirds of their oil. Developing countries receive half their oil through "direct government-to-government dealings."
The connection between oil and the Arab-Israeli conflict simply reinforces the potential for political mischance and mischief. Only two things could change today's oil psychology and politics fundamentally: either large discoveries, spread among different countries, that would redefine the earth's resource base; or the emergence of an inexpensive oil substitute. Otherwise, we are stuck with uncertainty.
The Reagan administration ought to be lunging at every opportunity to minimize that uncertainty, but it isn't.
It has squelched (possibly for good) a proposal from the World Bank to promote additional energy exploration and development in poorer nations; the more that can be done in these countries, the less pressure on world oil markets. And the same penny-pinching mentality has produced a senseless congressional squabble over how to finance additions to the strategic petroleum reserve: an emergency supply to be drawn down in crisis.
It's being filled now, but Congress and the administration are looking for ways to sidetrack spending for the reserve into an obscure off-budget account. If this causes delay, it will be a case of criminal negligence. The simple way to fill the reserve without increasing the government deficit would be to impose a modest (say, 2 cents a gallon) tax on oil. That's a small price for a bit of sanity and safety.