A steady drop in oil production in the Soviet Union, the world's biggest oil producer, could create a new world oil shortage by turning the U.S.S.R. into an oil importer rather than exporter, Soviet and Western oil industry officials and analysts fear.

Soviet oil exports already are declining, at least in part because some of the oil the Soviet Union was "exporting" actually was Iraqi oil that the Soviets obtained in exchange for military aircraft, Scud missiles and other weapons, several experts said. Those shipments were cut off last summer by the United Nations embargo on Iraqi oil.

"There's no question that Soviet oil production is declining, and this could have an impact on world oil supplies," said John Lichtblau, executive director of the New York-based Petroleum Industry Research Foundation. "At a time when there's no spare capacity in the world oil system because of the Middle East situation, any significant loss in exports could be serious."

Soviet oil production peaked at 12.5 million barrels a day in 1988. Since then, it has fallen sharply, to 11.4 million barrels a day in 1990 and perhaps as low as 10.4 million barrels a day this year, according to Robert Ebel, Washington-based vice president of Enserch Corp., a Texas-based diversified energy company.

The reasons for the decline in Soviet production are manifold and well-documented, ranging from a de-emphasis on capital spending for oil exploration and production to incompetent management to a shortage of kerosene needed for helicopters used in winter operations in the vast Siberian oil fields.

But the decline has taken on new importance because it appears to be accelerating and because the removal of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil from the world market last year has eliminated a supply cushion at the same time that the Soviet Union's former customers are looking for new sources of supply.

Nations in Eastern Europe that formerly purchased oil from the Soviet Union on highly favorable terms now are shopping in the world market because of cutbacks in the amounts the Soviets are willing to sell and new requirements that Soviet oil be paid for in hard currency.

Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, an industry newsletter, last week quoted a Soviet official as saying that Soviet oil exports would be halved this year after falling to 3.1 million barrels a day last year from 4.1 million barrels a day in 1989. KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov said in a December speech that exports would decline from 930.9 million barrels in 1989 to 439.8 million this year. Oil traders say they have seen virtually no cargoes of Urals crude oil, the chief Soviet export, for sale in recent weeks, although the Soviets have been taking bids for February shipments.

Some analysts believe the Soviets will attempt to cut domestic petroleum consumption to maintain export levels because they need the hard currency, but a group of Soviet officials warned this week that the nation may become a net importer of oil by 1995 if it cannot stem the decline. One Soviet official said that imports could be required as early as 1993.

"The country will have to buy oil from abroad," the group of officials said in a letter published in the Soviet newspaper Izvestia. The officials, who represent the industry in the Tyumen Province, which produces 80 percent of the Soviet Union's oil, said of the deterioration of the Soviet oil industry, "It pains us to see the industrial potential which has been built up ... over the last 25 years, actually fall to pieces before our eyes."

"It is ... a potential problem for the West," Lichtblau said. "If {the level of Soviet oil exports} drops substantially, it has to be made up somewhere else."

"It must bring a smile to the face" of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Ebel said. "It removes a major oil exporter and nobody outside of OPEC could step in to fill the gap."

The export decline also underscores the deepening economic crisis within the Soviet Union. Oil exports are one of the Soviet Union's chief sources of hard currency. In the deal with Iraq, which involved several hundred thousand barrels of oil a day, the Soviet Union received dollars from export customers for the Iraqi oil it acquired by bartering weapons.

In a recent article in a European magazine on Soviet affairs, Veniamin Simonov, an official of the Ministry of External Economic Relations, wrote that the Soviet Union is failing to pay its debts for the first time in its history and is incurring a huge foreign trade deficit. "Considering the current economic and political instability in the Soviet Union and the embarrassing fall in exports, the U.S.S.R. may ultimately plunge into a debt spiral," Simonov wrote.

In an effort to bolster its oil production -- and thus its exports -- the Soviets have invited U.S. and European oil companies to enter into joint ventures to provide capital and technology needed to develop existing and prospective Soviet oil fields. While oil industry officials say such arrangements hold great promise because of the vast Soviet oil reserves, no significant deals have yet been finalized because of the nation's continuing political upheaval and the difficulty in doing business in a country that has no formalized business system.

"Sizable investments, including significant contribution of Western expertise and technology, will be needed to prevent a continuing decline in the Soviet oil industry," according to a study by the European Community released in December.

Year ...................... Output

1987 ...................... 12.0

1988 ...................... 12.5

1989 ...................... 12.1

1990 ...................... 11.4

1991* ..................... 10.4


SOURCES: Robert Ebel, Enserch Corp; Thane Gustafson, "Crisis Amid Plenty."