People should not go grocery shopping in a supermarket when the're hungry, and nations shouldn't make energy policies when coming out of extraordinary cold winters. In both cases it leads to too much impulse buying.
The real vicissitudes and hardships of this winter aren't due to poor government planning or corporate greed. They're owing to a winter which is described as the coldest in the last 100 or 200 years. To build a fuel storage and distribution capacity to anticipate that would be absurdly expensive. It's the kind of insurance that everybody wants but nobody can afford, like $1-deductible collision insurance on the car, or a 38-lane highway outside a football field so that seven times a year spectators can leave the stadium at 45 miles per hour. It's cheaper to let the folks steam up their windshields in a traffic jam; by the same token our great-grandchildren in the year 2077 will be better able to take one bad winter than we are to invest the money to forestall it.
Nevertheless, people are working on energy policies. The President has said he will have one ready for Congress and the nation in April. Actually what we need isn't one, but two policies. A short-term policy for, say, the next 10 years, and at the same time initiate another policy, a fuel-conservation policy, whose good effects will start to become apparent in the early '80s.
The noises emitted by many of the leading people in Washington make one suspect that they are being tempted to foist immediate and drastic energy-use cuts on the country and that, if they hestitate to do it, it is only because they're uncertain as to the economic consequences. The economic consequences have to be bad, and the personal consequences for people of modest means will be worse. Larger percentages of what is mockingly called their disposable income will be given over to playing for fuel in one form or another. The poorest will have some kind of subsidy, thereby increasing their already politically dangerous dependency on the central government.
Whence comes this need for immediate cutbacks? Not from a shortage of crude oil. Although American crude reserves have been declining, proven world reserves have been growing, thanks to a continuous stream of discoveries. Much of this oil, however, is in Arab lands, and we have an aversion to burning any foreign oil, but most especially Arab oil. Our big shots are insisting America have "energy independence."
Otherwise the Arabs will be in a position to embargo our oil again. Only now the question arises, did they ever embargo our oil? The late John M. Blair in his new and excellent book, "The Control of Oil" (Pantheon, New York, $15), brings forth a number of disturbing figuers to show that the oil embargo was mainly another hoax sold to gullible journalists. Production figures from the Arab countries during the year of the embargo not only revealed no dip, but a raise so that the finger of suspicion points to the oil companies and their strange, never-satisfactorily-explained reduction in refined production here in the United States at the time.
Blair in his book, a work that is bound - along with a forthcoming Robert Engler book ("The Brotherhood of Oil: Energy Policy and the Public Interest," University of Chicago Press - to have great influence, argues that the embargo was a put-up job by the oil companies to kick up the prices.
Cutting back either at the well or at the refinery is the industry's traditional way of trying to control prices. In the early '30s oilmen prevailed upon the governors of Texas and Oklahoma to send the National Guard into the oil fields to shut down independent driller whose "overproduction" had driven down the price of crude to 10 cents a barrel. That they should have resorted to the same tricks in the '70s is hardly surprising, but the rational response to such maneuvers isn't to demand a habituated, oil dependent society go cold turkey.
It makes more sense to force the oil companies to sell stated quantities of oil at stated maximum prices. Although tax schemes like this usually backfire, we might, for instance, consider a tax setup for the industry in which companies pay progressively lower taxes as they sell progressively more oil at or under the stated price. On the other hand, income from oil over that price could be taxed at breathtakingly high rates.
That oil should be imported from abroad. We can be "energy independent" while burning OPEC oil. Indeed, during this short-range period the best way to forestall another Arab oil embargo or American oil company boycott or call it what you will is to husband American oil reserves so that persons, corporations and nations thinking about pushing up the price inordinately know that we can swamp the world with oil antime we want, dumping it to break the price downward.
From the late '50s American oil policy has been to limit imports and to encourage the consumption of domestic reserves first. Given the need for moderately priced oil for national defense and world economic stability, the policy was near treason. It was first put into effect to protect the price of domestic oil against cheaper imports, and it remains in place as a goal because the men in Washington mistaknely believe bruning other people's is a sign of national weakness.
Production of American crude should be discouraged and even stopped, if possibly, so that we can use up the other guys' oil as long as they let us. That won't make anybody warmer when winters are like this one, but it should get us through the close range into the 1980s when our consumption must begin to drop.