WINTER'S COMING, and as the boycott of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil continues, it's reasonable to ask about fuel supplies for the cold weather. The answer is that there won't be shortages, and price jumps are likely to be much less drastic than in the oil crises of the past two decades. The outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf obviously would change that reassuring forecast. But the country has learned a lot from the earlier disruptions of its oil supplies, and its energy systems are much more shock-resistant than they were when the first great oil squeeze began 17 years ago this autumn.
Public policy is better. There won't be shortages of gasoline or natural gas like those of the 1970s, because the federal government has abandoned the price controls that created them.
Industry has built flexibility into new plants, enabling them to switch back and forth among fuels. The electric utilities now use a third as much oil as they did in 1973, burning it only for intermittent peak-power generation. When oil prices first leaped upward, the utilities anxiously turned to coal only to find that the coal companies couldn't respond quickly. But since then the coal mines have increased their production by half, and the utilities are now buying under long-term contracts that protect them and their customers from sudden jumps in fuel pricing.
Here in Washington, Pepco says that higher oil costs may push its customers' bills up a little. But despite the trouble in the Persian Gulf, it is paying less for oil today than it did last winter after the December cold snap.
Similarly, the 1973 crisis set off a great scramble for natural gas, and prices soared. But this winter, regardless of the turmoil in the oil markets, Washington Gas says that it foresees nothing more than the normal seasonal upswing in its prices.
For people who heat their homes with oil, the impact is going to be sharper. Last winter crude oil sold for about $20 a barrel, and fuel oil cost about $1 a gallon. At $30 a barrel it will go for $1.25, and so forth. You have seen reports that oil has hit $40 a barrel, but keep it in mind that little oil has actually been traded at that price. It's a futures price, lifted by rumors of war earlier this week.
To protect themselves, householders have learned since 1973 to insulate roofs, install storm windows, maintain their furnaces and wear sweaters -- all of which has saved them a lot of money during these 17 years. This winter will be the third since 1973 in which the oil line has been squeezed. But this time it doesn't look as though there's anything like a crisis ahead.