Odd-even gasoline rationing may be quickly reimposed in the Washington area if Iranian oil supplies are cut off again, a local official said yesterday.
"There's no question we'd go to odd-even, if Iranian oil is cut off," and D.C. energy chief Chuck Clinton. "We're prepared to go immediately."
Local officials and energy companies are keeping a close watch on the events in Iran, where oil tanker pilots have threatened to halt shipments to this country. The strike threat was made in support of students who have taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and are holding staff members hostage.
Clinton and energy chiefs from Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware met here yesterday with U.S. energy officials. The long-planned meeting covered several topics, but interest focused on the possibility of a cutoff of Iranian supplies and the effects on this region.
"The most concern is that the general public does not panic when in fact we have no indication of a problem," said Obra Kernodie, a regional Energy Department representative who led the meeting.
Kernodle said national inventories of gasoline and crude oil are high and that a "taut supply situation would not surface (here) for 60 days" following a cutoff -- the time it takes an oil tanker to travel from Iran to this country.
But spokesmen for major oil companies said yesterday that a cutoff would be felt sooner than that.
"If it's going to be an extended cut-off, you then have enough oil," said Sunoco spokesman L.D. Davis. He said that a cutoff might result in curtailments to U.S. Service stations within days or weeks.
Odd-even rationing was imposed in the Washington area last June to curb panic buying in the wake of a cutoff of Iranian supplies six months earlier. The system, under which motorists could only buy gasoline on days determined by their license plate numbers, was credited with stemming the long gasoline lines of last summer. The system was discontinued Oct. 1.
But within a month, there were indications that, even with a steady supply from Iran, gasoline supplies nationwide would be tight in November.
This week's edition of the Lundberg Letter, a respected gasoline marketing newsletter, said that nationwide supplies of gasoline will be 10.9 percent lower this month than they were in November last year -- a tighter squeeze than any month of the gasoline-short summer.
Last month, when there were sporadic lines in this area, the shortfall nationally was only 6.6 percent, according to the Lunberg analysis.
The Lunberg editors said it was "unlikely" that consumers would be able to cut their consumption by another 4 or 5 percentage points without experiencing disruptions reminiscent of earlier this year."
Figures for the Washington area suggest that supplies may be be quite as tight as expected nationwide. Clinton said the District will receive 93 percent of year-ago supplies this month and Virginia officials expect to receive 92 percent. Maryland figures were not available.
Because of the lower supply levels this month, the Washington Metropolitan Board of Trade yesterday called on the chief executive of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to reinstate odd-even rationing.
Board president Oliver T. Carr Jr. said in a letter that the availability of supplies "is a continuing concern" and that a return to rationing would remind consumers of the need to conserve, especially in light of the approaching holiday season.
"We think we have enough to get through the month so long as people realize we're on this cutting edge of supply and demand," said Clinton.
Clinton and oil executives said all bets are off, however, if oil supplies from Iran are disrupted.
"Given the tenuous balance between supply and demand, any interruptions in crude oil supplies could have a major impact," a statement released by Exxon said yesterday.
Some oil executives, who asked not to be identified, said that if Iran cuts off oil shipments only to the United States, the impact here may be limited.
"You can change your worldwide flow, you can change your pattern of shipments so the U.S. is not hurt," said one oil man.
"If there's a boycott strictly of theU.S., it's probably not going to be particularly effective because the oil woud go to other countries and other oil would be freed up for shipment to the U.S.," said another oil man.
Iran currently supplies about 450,000 barrels of oil daily to the United States -- about 2.5 percent of U.S. daily consumption Worldwide, Iran exports more than 3 million barrels daily, or 6 percent of the free world's supply.
"If Iran completely goes down and cuts off 6 percent of the free world's oil, that would have an impact," said an oil man who asked not to be identified. "There just isn't the excess production capacity" in the world to cover such a large supply cut, he said.
Sunoco's Davis said that even a total Iranian cutoff would probably have less impact now than last December's cutoff did.
"Iran is supplying less oil than a year ago, world oil consumption is down, and in the U.S. there's an allocation system with the bugs worked out," Davis said. "A cutoff would result in tighter gasoline supplies, but whether that would translate into gas lines a few months down the road is anybody's guess."