SO IS THE WORLD heading toward an oil crisis - or not? It would not be astonishing if readers, and voters, found themselves in some considerable confusion over the question. Throughout the past year there has been a cacophony of expert opinion testifying that there will be a crisis, that there won't, that it certainly will come in the mid-1980s, or that it certainly won't come before the late 1900s. That confusion is the basic reason for the failure of Congress to pass President Carter's energy bills.
To make up your mind about the future of oil, you need to start with the subject of economic growth. The faster a country's economy expands, the more jobs it will create, the higher its living standards will go - and the more oil it will burn. In the 15 months since Mr. Carter first announced his energy program, the prospect for rapid economic expansion has faded. It now seems much more likely that the United States and the other industrial nations are in for a period of low growth, inflation, rather high unemployment and living standards that advance slowly, if at all. The silver lining to that forecast is that at least there won't be a rapid run-up in oil consumption. That would postpone the kind of crisis that Mr. Carter has been talking about - the point at which the world's demand for oil outruns the ability to produce it.
But, unfortunately, you can't stop there. If low growth takes the pressure off the world oil supply, it also presents another kind of danger to the United States. This country is now running a foreign trade deficit far too large to sustain. The Carter administration is urgently hoping for faster growth in other industrial countries, to increase their purchases of American goods. If that doesn't happen, the imbalance is likely to resolve itself the other way - through an American recession.
You have probably heard it said, over and over, that raising prices doesn't cut oil consumption because people will pay any price to get it. You may also have heard it said that, in an industrial country like ours, energy consumption has to rise at the same rate as economic growth. Both assertions, as it happens, are wrong. The great surge in oil prices began at the end of 1973. Enough time has now passed that you can see clearly the effects of those higher prices. It's quite true that in the past quarter of a century, on the average, the demand for energy has risen as fast as total economic output. But over the past four years, under the impact of suddenly higher prices, the use of energy has gone up only one-fifth as fast as economic output. The change is most visible in industry. In 1977, industrial production in the United States was nine percent higher than in 1973. But industrial consumption of energy was actually five percent lower.
The potential oil crisis is not fixed at any specific date in the future. It is a movable disaster. Profligate consumption of energy advances the crisis toward the present. Wise public policy - which includes systematic conservation enforced by higher prices - can keep pushing a crisis into the future, perhaps indefinitely. A long period of low economic growth, no growth and recession would also postpone trouble over oil. That is the direction in which the country now seems to be moving. Of all the ways to avoid an oil crisis, that is the most expensive and in social terms, the most inequitable. Mr. Carter, at the Bonn meeting earlier this month, urged faster growth in the industrial world. But, in the absence of a stronger energy policy, the country is on a seesaw. If the economic prospect gets better, the risk of oil shortages gets worse - and vice versa.