Supplies and prices of gasoline and heating oil in the Washington area should not be affected significantly by the Persian Gulf war unless there is a dramatic escalation of the conflict that shuts off the flow of oil from the gulf, national the local oil experts said yesterday.
At the same time, the experts said that the worldwide oil glut that has kept gasoline and heating oil prices depressed and that now provides a security blanket against the limited supply disruption caused by the war could disappear quickly.
At local gasoline pumps yesterday, a well honed cynicism was evident.
"As soon as comes the higher prices, the war is going to stop," said Shamil Gozala, a Mobil dealer in Arlington. Gozalza said that this customers yesterday were "a little bit shaky," worried that gasoline prices will rise sharply or that they once again will have to wait in lines.
Oil executives saud that might happen if there is a major blow-up in the Middle East.
"We could use up the suplus in a month. We'd be in the soup quickly," said a top executive of an international oil company that is a major supplier of gasoline to the Washington area.
He was speaking of a "worst case" scenario in which oil exports from the Persian Gulf -- amounting to 30 percent of worldwide consumption -- would be shut off over an extended period.
Other oil executives, however, said that if the current cut-off of Iranian and Iraqi exports -- about 7 percent of worldwide consumption -- simply continued without spreading, it would be 60 days or more before prices might rise at gasoline pumps in Washington.
Even then, experst said, there would probably still be enough oil available so that gasoline lines would not form.
They said that just before the war in the Persian Gulf, daily world oil production exceeded demand by about 3 million barrels. The cut-off of oil exports form Iran and Iraq totals 3-to4-million barrels a day -- using up that daily production surplus but creating only a very small deficit for the time being.
That deficit could be increased by some members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries that have a greed informally tomove toward a 10 percent production cutback.
Gasoline prices in the Washington area now average $1.31 a gallon, having dropped a penny recently due to the glut. The average price of a gallon of home heating oil in the Washington area is $1.04.4, according to a Washington Post survey.
Mark Emond, editor of the respected Lundberg Letter, a petroleum marketing newsletter, said there will be no gasoline lines in Washington or anywhere else "unless people see stations closing and that won't happen because we've got gasoline running down the streets."
Even if all oil exports from the Persian Gulf are shut off, Emond said, oil and petroleum product stocks might last long enough for military action to open the shipping landes again.
While prices at gasoline stations and heating oil distributors here have not yet risen because of the Persian Gulf war, prices in the volatile world oil markets, where speculators trade in oil products and futures, were jumping yesterday.
Thomas F. McKiernan, an energy futures specialis with Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner & Smith Inc. in New York, said the spot market price for home heating oil rose 7 1/2 cents in the past three days to 84 cents a gallon after months of remaining constant at about 76 cents.
McKiernan, who was handling two other phone calls simultaneously from oil investors as a reporter interviewed him by phone, said spot market gasoline has also gone up 7 cents during the same period, hitting 92 cents a gallon after being at about 85 cents for months.
McKiernan quoted one of his customers as saying, "Gee, I'd like to buy it [oil], but I don't have anywhere to put it."
Oil executives said that speculators may be driving up prices in the spot market -- the free world market in oil and oil products that are not sold under long-term supply contracts -- but that the big oil companies are not yet resorting to spot-market buying to keep up their supplies.
If they do, prices for consumers here can be expected to begin rising, the executives said.
Steuart Petroleum Co., the largest heating oil wholesaler in the Washington area, has enough oil in its massive storage tanks on the Potomac River to supply its customers through January even if it never received another drop of oil from its suppliers, company President Leonard Steuart II said.
Steuart supplies most of the heavy heating oil used in big office and apartment buildings here, and is a major supplier to most of the dozens of home heating oil retailers which sell to the 300,000 homeowners in the area who heat with oil.
The largest of these retailers, Griffith Consumers with 50,000 customers has already filled most of its customers' tanks this year -- something that customers don't usually call for until cold weather hits.
A Griffith spokesman said people filled their tanks early because they are "insecure. The average guy has got enough to last him until December."