If Vice President Bush and a large segment of the oil industry are right, the current good news of lower oil prices has a foreboding flip side.
Inevitably, lower oil prices mean lower oil production in this country and in other areas where the costs of extracting oil are relatively high. These high-cost areas lie outside the Persian Gulf. If U.S. oil production drops rapidly, by the 1990s, America may again fall into the clutches of the foreign oil cartel, as it did in the 1970s, a decade of oil embargoes, gasoline lines and soaring fuel prices.
In 1977, the United States depended upon imported oil for 46 percent of its gasoline, heating oil and other petroleum products, with one-third of the imports coming from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, headed by Saudi Arabia.
When the Iranian revolution caused a sharp drop in Iran's oil production in 1979, oil supplies tightened around the world and the price of oil and oil products doubled. Roughly half of the devastating inflation of the 1970s was because of increases in energy prices during the decade, economic consultant Joel Popkin estimates.
Could that scenario be repeated?
Aivars Krasts, vice president for planning at Conoco Inc., is one of many industry officials who say that it could.
Last year, the United States imported only 27 percent of its petroleum needs. And because the escalation of oil prices in the 1970s brought many new suppliers onto the scene, the Arab OPEC members supplied only 3 percent of U.S. imports.
If oil prices remain at the current $14 to $16 a barrel level, the U.S. will be importing up to 50 percent of its oil by 1995, Krasts estimates. "This is a greater degree of dependence than we had in 1973," Krasts said in a speech last week.
The loss of U.S. oil production will begin with the low-volume, high-cost "stripper" wells that don't make money at $15 a barrel or less, said William Fisher of the University of Texas. Tens of thousands of stripper wells will be shut down if prices remain below $15 a barrel, he predicted. In addition, as oil production from Alaska's Prudhoe Bay begins to decline in 1987, there won't be enough new discoveries to offset the decline, with oil at $15 a barrel. By 1990, the United States would have lost one-third of its production capability, Fisher estimated.
"My guess is, we'd be in a similar position to where we were in the '70s, and we wouldn't have another Prudhoe Bay coming on line as we did then. I think at $15 a barrel, it becomes a very significant national security issue in three to four years," Fisher said. "If you want to make the assumption that the Saudis will give oil to us at an advantageous price, fine. I kind of doubt it."
Conoco's Krasts said the decline in U.S. production could be slowed if government policy were changed to reflect the new reality of oil markets. Natural gas could be deregulated. The windfall profits tax on oil, and other oil taxes could be lightened to encourage more exploration.
"It should strike us as strange that among the current and prospective oil-producing countries in the world, the United States is unique in still trying to raise taxes on its petroleum-producing companies," Krasts said.
Other experts question the dependence scenario and the need for costly subsidies to U.S. stripper-well operators and other high-cost producers.
John Sawhill, a partner with the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and a former top federal energy official, noted that there are many more oil producers now than in the early 1970s. The oil price escalation of the 1970s triggered exploration in Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Mexico and other non-OPEC countries, and OPEC's recent troubles demonstrate how hard it is to group that many producers around a single strategy.
The greater diversity of sources means that the United States can live with a higher level of imports, Sawhill said. "I don't think we'll see a reconcentration of supplies from the Middle East." He believes that oil prices will move up some from current lows, and shouldn't be cause for alarm, or for costly subsidies to oil producers by the federal government. "Let's take advantage of lower oil prices," Sawhill says.
One critical factor that challenges the forecasters is the timing of shifts in oil production and consumption.
Although production outside of OPEC will fall, if the balance between supply and demand tightens gradually, prices may also rise gradually. This will create an incentive for more exploration and production. If the transition is smooth, there could be a long period of lower oil prices without an OPEC-induced escalation at the end.
The Saudis, the other major Persian Gulf oil producers, and the major multinational oil companies have the capability to create just such a smooth shift, if they choose to, says Paul Mlotok, an energy analyst with the Salomon Brothers investment firm.
Mlotok, in a new assessment of oil prices and OPEC's role, foresees several years of volatile swings in oil prices around an average price of $12 to $16 per barrel.
The current plunge in prices is part of an upheaval in the oil sector that is paralleled only by the breakup of the Standard Oil Trust in 1911, Mlotok and colleague Michael Young say in their report, "World Oil Markets -- Back to the Future."
That breakup was followed by 20 years of extreme volatility in world oil markets that ended only when the Texas Railroad Commission took a tough regulatory hold over oil production in the state.
The price shake-up that began last November may last no longer than 1990, however, Mlotok and Young said. By then, the world's oversupply of crude oil that has blocked OPEC's efforts to reestablish the cartel will be substantially reduced.
That may lead the way to a period of stable prices in the 1990s, regulated by a new cartel created by the Gulf states and the big oil companies, they said.
"We expect an arrangement of several large, integrated units to emerge, functioning from wellhead to gasoline pump, and amalgamating the core OPEC nations with the major international oil companies." This new cartel of companies and "more disciplined" OPEC producers could maintain prices in the $18 to $20 a barrel range for an extended period, Mlotok and Young suggest.
"The one hope is that the major OPEC producers and the oil companies have learned a lesson -- that the extreme volatility we've seen is undesirable. . . . In about four year, we'll find out," Mlotok says.