Consumers are beginning to respond to the dramatic rise in oil prices since August by using less petroleum, but there is little prospect that the United States can duplicate the huge drops in demand for oil that followed the price shocks of the 1970s, according to industry analysts and government reports.

In the oil shock of 1990, don't expect energy conservation to come to the rescue.

There is short-run evidence of some decline in demand. The amount of gasoline shipped to U.S. service stations in October was the lowest for that month in five years, the American Petroleum Institute in Washington reported last week. Total U.S. petroleum consumption in October was down 4.8 percent from a year earlier, but relatively mild weather in most of the country and the slowdown in economic growth accounted for a substantial part of the decline, API said.

The Energy Department, using different measures, said Friday that overall U.S. petroleum consumption declined 0.5 percent in the week that ended Nov. 9 and is down 1.2 percent so far this year compared to 1989.

And oil industry analysts are predicting that world oil consumption in 1990 will be flat or down compared to 1989, after three straight years of increase. Next year's consumption is expected to be only slightly higher at best.

"Obviously, the drop-off here is much less than in the past, but still something significant," said Paul Mlotok, an oil industry analyst for Morgan Stanley & Co. in New York. "My best sense of it is that we're looking at something like zero growth next year."

Still, that's a far cry from the huge declines in demand that followed the oil shocks of the 1970s. For instance, between 1978 -- the year before the Iranian revolution led to the last major price run-up -- and 1980, U.S. consumption of refined petroleum products dropped nearly 10 percent. Demand dropped another 11 percent in the next three years as the recession, provoked by the price increases, rippled through the economy: Industries shut down their oldest and least fuel-efficient factories, and automakers turned out more efficient cars.

Analysts say there won't be a similar plunge in demand this time for a number of reasons.

Even though the price of crude oil is up about $10 a barrel from its $20-a-barrel level before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August and has been over $40 a barrel at times in the past three months, the rate of the price increase this time has been much smaller than the oil-price jumps of the 1970s.

Adjusted for inflation, oil prices would have to rise to $80 a barrel to match the highs of 1979-80. The price increases of this summer and fall have distressed motorists and hit hard at some businesses -- especially airlines -- but they have not been enough to cause factory shutdowns or other Draconian responses.

"This price increase hasn't been anywhere as nearly pronounced," said William Randol, an oil analyst for First Boston Inc. in New York. "This is child's play compared to that."

At the same time, skyrocketing oil demand in developing nations is expected to offset any decline in demand in the industrialized world, even if higher prices and the economic slowdown they have accelerated curb the energy appetites of the developing countries.

Crises Paved Way In addition, America's cars, factories and houses are so much more energy efficient now than they were in 1970 that demand for petroleum products can decline only marginally, no matter what the costs, analysts say. "Because of the previous crises, the easiest forms of energy savings have been done," Mlotok said. "You're starting from a much more efficient level."

Given those adjustments, the demand for petroleum products is relatively inelastic, experts say, even with the sharp price increases of the past few months.

The Department of Energy estimates that each $1 increase in the world price of crude oil reduces U.S. petroleum demand by about 63,000 barrels a day -- an infinitesimal amount compared to the 17 million barrels of crude oil the U.S. consumes daily.

"Aside from a minor conservation effect, few uses for oil would be significantly impacted even if prices remained near $30" a barrel, said Daniel A. Dreyfus, chief economic analyst for the Gas Research Institute, a natural gas industry group in Washington. As a practical matter, it is difficult to shift to alternative fuels, whether for transportation or in industry.

According to the Energy Department's quarterly analysis, if the price of oil averages $35 a barrel throughout 1991, demand in the non-communist world would be about 1.9 million barrels a day less than it would be at $25, a price level generally considered much more likely after a resolution of the Persian Gulf crisis. That $10 difference means a difference in demand of only about three-tenths of 1 percentage point.

Conventional economic theory would say that reduced demand should by itself drive prices down, but all analysts agree that the current level of oil prices is not a function of a supply-demand imbalance. Oil is plentiful, but fear of future shortages in the event of hostilities has led New York commodities market traders to bid up the price.

As fears of war have ebbed in recent days, prices have slipped accordingly. After trading in a range of $32 to $36 a barrel for most of the past couple of weeks, the market price of high-quality crude oil slipped below $30 Friday for the first time in weeks. Some analysts expect the price to drift lower, barring bad news from the Persian Gulf, although others point out that there is little slack in the supply-demand equation to make up for tightness that could be caused by an unusually cold winter or an unexpected supply shortfall.

Because of the difficulty of reducing oil demand in the short run, September's price of more than $40 stirred fears of a much greater economic impact than those of previous price increases, since there are fewer options to avoid high energy costs.

"Regardless of the rate of {price} increase, petroleum will continue to provide about 40 percent of the United States's total energy consumption for some years to come," Victor S. Rezendes, energy issues director of the General Accounting Office, told a Senate hearing in September.

"An oil price of $30 a barrel would be a guarantee of recession and a cumulative cost of the U.S. economy measured in the hundreds of billions, repeating history," Harvard University professor William W. Hogan said at the same hearing, when the price of oil was just under $30 a barrel.

There may be an oil-price level at which consumption would drop sharply, but it is so high that few experts dare even to guess what it is. Certainly, it is well above $30. Even at $40 a barrel in today's deflated dollars, oil remains cheaper than most alternative forms of energy.

There is not much significant conservation potential left in the short run, particularly in the United States, following the changes that were made in response to the two previous oil shocks. The average mileage of a new American automobile now is twice what it was in 1975, for instance, and electrical utilities have reduced oil use to 12 percent of their generating needs from 45 percent. Millions of homes have been insulated and switched to more efficient furnaces, countless factories now burn natural gas instead of fuel oil and chemical plants have switched to natural gas from oil.

Overall, according to John Lichtblau, director of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation in New York, U.S. oil consumption this year "will be no higher than in 1980, while our GNP during this period has grown by one-third and our automobile fleet by 28 percent."

More to Be Done Conservationists argue that there is still much more that could be done: stricter federal auto-mileage regulations, programs to encourage mass transit, increased use of alternative fuels and more use of natural gas for home heat in the heating-oil-dependent Northeast.

But those are long-term solutions, unlikely to make an impact for many years even if they could be mandated immediately.

And some analysts believe that many consumers in the United States will put up with higher prices before they resort to significant conservation.

"I have a lot of trouble identifying what I would call conservation out there," said Theodore Eck, chief economist of Amoco Corp., the Chicago-based oil giant. "Nobody is hanging up their big cars and buying two small ones."

Eck argues that the lesson of the two previous oil shocks has been that Americans change their oil-consuming habits because of shortages more than they do in response to higher prices. And there has been no shortage this time around.

"People in the United States aren't going to alter their consumption habits because it costs $15 to fill their tank instead of $10," Eck said. "Conservation really sounds good and is good and there are a lot of good, sound reasons why we should want to do it, but I think in the United States people would rather pay more and not have shortages."