THE NEXT GREAT oil crisis, according to the standard forecast will arrive in the mid-1980s. That forecast is the basis not only for President Carter's energy policy, but for many industries' planning as well. Because of the importance of this view of the future in forming the nation's preparations, it's worth going back to actual performance from time to time to see how things are going. There are beginning to be interesting hints, here and there, that the coming oil squeeze may work out differently than most Americans have been assuming - not necessarily better or more easily, but differently.
When the Carter administration took office it forsaw, for good reason, a dismaying sequence of events ahead. The industrial nations would try to make their economies grow faster to reduce the high unemployment that was, and still is, common to all of them. This economic growth would greatly increase the demand for oil. For the next two or three years that increased demand would be met by a couple of lucky discoveries in the north - in Alaska and in the North Sea.But starting some time after 1981, the full weight of increasing oil requirements would fall back onto the countries of the Persian Gulf. As these rising demands started pressing the limits of world supply, prices would then shoot suddenly upward again - perhaps with severe disruptions in deliveries. It would be like the sixfold price increases and the embargoes of 1973 and 1974 all over again, on a larger scale.That was why Mr. Carter called for the conservation and tax legislation that, a year later, is still stuck in the House-Senate conference.
But meanwhile there have been some slight changes in the signals. They were recently outlined by John H. Lichtblau, an experienced analyst of the oil industry, writing in the OPEC Review. Excerpts of that article are printed on the opposite page. Mr. Lichtblau notes two particularly significant points.
Over the past two years there has been a sharp drop in the amount of oil required to produce each additional dollar's worth of economic output in this country. That is pure conservation - and a very good sign.But there is another and more ominous trend that appears to be developing along with it. Most of the industrial countries' economies are expanding more slowly than their governments expected, and, in particular, business investment has been low. It is beginning to look as though the industrial world may be entering a period of prolonged low growth - one reason for which would be the expectation of energy shortages ahead.
If those trends continue, the world won't see the widely forecast energy convulsions of 1985, with the demand for oil bumping against the production ceiling and buyers bidding frantically against each other for limited supplies. Instead, the world would see something much less dramatic - put not necessarily less damaging. If you are not an optimist, you might almost say that we are beginning to see it now. It is simply a continued level of economic performance that is, by the past decade's standards, very poor.
Does it all mean that Congress ought not pass the languishing energy bill? On the contrary, the unfinished bill is making matters worse by aggravating all the uncertainties over future government policy. Nobody knows what the future energy taxes will be or the import rules or price controls or fuel supply plans. That means postponed investment, which leads in turn to still lower growth rates. Low economic growth would make oil shortages less likely in the 1980s. But it would exact a high price in unemployment and diminished opportunity in our society.