Three years ago, President Carter called for the creation of a strategic oil reserve as a hedge against a possible cutoff of Middle East supplies. Millions of barrels of oil were supposed to be pumped into abandoned salt mines in Louisiana -- there to be ready for any future Arab embargo or other disruption.

But the program encountered the indecision and inefficiency that have hampered many of Carter's good intentions. Instead of the six months' supply that had been envisioned, the United States now has scarcely two weeks' supply of oil in its strategic reserves.

Now the president is talking about renewing the flow of oil into the waiting salt mines, an action that is considered essential to protect the U.S. economy. But the years of delay in building up oil reserves will cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.

If Carter had gone ahead with his original plan, not only could enormous sums have been saved, but a reservoir of oil could have been accumulated. But he was unnerved by the Saudi Arabians who vowed to cut back production if the United States tried to build up oil reserves.

If Carter had called the Saudis' bluff and had begun building a billion-barrel oil stockpile when he said he was going to, they would have backed down from their threat to cut production. This is the opinion of congressional experts on Saudi Arabian affairs.

The importance of a strategic petroleum reserve was recognized by Carter when he first took office. It was to make sure the American economy would never again be held hostage by the Arab oil producers, as it had been during the embargo of 1973-74.

The Saudis have been our most reliable supplier, but they understandably opposed the creation of such a sizable petroleum cushion beyond their control. If the United States could get along for several months without Arab oil, we could thumb our noses at their demands for concessions on such foreign policy matters as the Palestinian question. An oil stockpile in the United States would also lessen the Arab oil cartel's control of prices.

So the Saudis brought enormous pressure on the Carter administration, threatening to reduce exports if the oil they sold us was pumped into the Louisiana salt domes for future use. But sources who have dealt with the Saudis are convinced that they could have been won over by playing on their fears of Soviet encirclement. The argument would be that a U.S. oil reserve was necessary for a strong America that could protect the Saudis from the Soviet Union.

Instead of countering the Saudi threats with this kind of reasoning, and then going ahead with the strategic oil stockpile, the Carter administration blinked and folded its hand in this poker game.

Congressional sources told my associate Vickie Warren that the president is belatedly planning to buy oil for the strategic reserve. The target date is now understood to be after the Algiers meeting of OPEC this month.

The cost of the three years of delay will be staggering. While Carter was appeasing the Saudis, the price of petroleum has more than doubled -- from about $14 a barrel to more than $30. To fill the stockpile will now cost the taxpayers in the neighborhood of $15 billion more than it would have earlier.

The administration is shopping around for domestic oil to put in the strategic reserve. This would not offend the Saudis, but it would have the effect of withdrawing supplies from the U.S. market and thus pushing up prices for American consumers.

Yet the cost of not stockpiling an oil supply could be even more staggering, according to an unpublished Energy Department report.

Without a strategic reserve as a bargaining chip, the experts estimate that in a "worst-case" scenario -- a Soviet-U.S. confrontation in the Persian Gulf that cuts off the region's oil supplies to this country -- it would cost the United States as much as $700 billion to keep the economy going. If our allies were caught equally unprepared -- as they are at this time -- it could cost them three times as much, the analysts warn.

Monetary considerations aside, the report concludes grimly that "the great concern about Soviet control of the Persian Gulf stems from their ability to extract economic, military and foreign policy concessions from the United States and its allies by threatening to disrupt our oil supplies."

Such are the possible consequences of our continuing vacillation about our nation's energy independence.