A new and embarrassing word threatens to creep into the nation's energy vocabulary in the coming months, one that could wilt the political ardor for tough and far-reaching energy measures.
The word is "glut."
The crisis rhetoric of recent months has not focused on it, but oil experts generally agree on this: for the next three years or so, the world is going to have plenty of oil - probably too much.
"There is no question," said an official from one international oil company, "there will be an oil surplus - a glut, if you will - between now and 1981, due to new supplies from the North Slope and North Sea."
J. Wally Hopkins, an international expert in Paris, who monitors supply and demand for the industrialized nations, observed:
"The surplus presents a very real problem today because of the lead times involved in ensuring that we have oil in the future. . . The arrival of supplies from the North Sea and Alaska give us very welcome breathing space . . ."
Clement B. Malin, the Federal Energy Administration's assistant director for international affairs, acknowledges this "softening" in the marketplace.
"I call it three years of grace, not three years of glut," Malin said.
Whatever one calls it, the short-term future confronts President Carter and his energy planners with a prickly political problem. It does not necessarily contradict what the Carter administration has been saying about the "energy crisis" ahead because its dire predictions are cast further into the future, based on what they expect by 1985. In the meantime, however, there is this embarrassing "hump" as one official called it a period of several years when the world's "excess capacity" in oil production is expected to increase sharply.
This period will give America more time, to be sure, but it may also deepen skepticism about whether painful measures are needed. At the least, the "grace" period undercuts the economic incentives which are supposed to prod private capital into investing in new oil wells or alternative sources of energy. The surplus will be a "contrary signal" to American consumers, too, who are already rather skeptical.
"That's going to be Carter's biggest problem," said a Washington official from a major oil company, "convincing people to conserve when we're awash in crude oil. . . It should be a concern to everybody in this town. When the surplus comes, it's going to come really hard and fast."
An administration energy official put it this way: "That's why it is important to get as much legislation through now as possible - before your credibility gets undermined, at least temperorily."
Under the old rules of economics, when supply exceeds demand, it is supposed to produce lower prices in the marketplace.Some businessmen and economists, who might be called "fundamentalist" because they still espouse the old rules, would like to see this happen to oil in the next few years.
But none of them really expects it. Too many dominant players have a shared interest in maintaining high-priced oil - including Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries members, the major oil companies, the British government and the United States government.
"We have entered into a whole new theory of economics in this country," complained Bruce Wilson, oil analyst for the investment banking firm of Smith, Barney, Harris, Upham. "If you have a national policy to increase production, it should drive prices down. Yet today we are pro-rating supply to maintain a high price structure."
The Carter administration has premised all of its energy [WORD ILLEGIBLE] proposals on higher prices for the consumers and its tax measures are hinged on the world price set by the OPEC nations. Surplus would threaten that price, but officials assume that surplus can be avoided if OPEC nations simply cutback on exports, particularly from Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest partner.
This balancing off of supply and demand is hardly new; it has been a regular dynamic of international oil for at least two generations. But the impending situation will demonstrate how much U.S. interests have coalesced with Arab oil interests, in both price and supply. The days of hot political rhetoric, when U.S. leaders talked of "breaking" the OPEC cartel price or establishing "energy independence" from the Arabs, are dead and forgotten, replaced by a new reality of interlocking political-economic interests.
Thus, if things are managed right, the threat of glut may appear - but it will never materialize. As increased crude oil comes flowing into the world market from Alaska's North Slope and Britain's North Sea Field and Mexico (conservatively estimated, this will add up to 5 million barrels of crude oil per day by 1980), oil merchants here and abroad will simply "back out" OPEC oil, as the oilmen put it. The pressure to increase OPEC prices will abate; the world's oil supplies would be "stretched out."
Despite the rhetoric of independence, America has increased its reliance on Arab oil dramatically since the traumatic embargo of 1973-74. Arab oil rose from 14 per cent to 36 per cent of U.S. imports. Malin expects that trend to level off for the next few years and OPEC exports to remain about where they are now. But oil experts outside the government predict that OPEC will have to reduce its exports to accommodate the new oil in the world market.
Most energy experts assume that Saudi Arabia can cut back on its oil production indefinitely, though some dissenters argue that there are limits to how much "excess capacity" even the Saudis can absorb without economic pain for themselves. According to one estimate, the OPEC "excess capacity" will rise from 9 million barrels per day to more than 17 million barrels a day by 1980 - nearly enough oil to supply total U.S. consumption.
Even if OPEC were to become vulnerable, U.S. policy now assumes strong national objectives in avoiding that saturation point. The United States wants political stability in those countries and their long-term assurance of oil supplies for that period after 1981 when U.S. imports are expected to turn upward again. The United States wants a high price to encourage conservation at home. It wants general prosperity in the OPEC nations because they do most of their trading and investing with America.
"We have learned to live with high-priced oil," said one national security analyst.
Sheikh Zaki Yamani emphasized the new symbiosis in an interview in May: "Anything which is good for you will be done for you by Saudi Arabia."
Closer to home, there is another problem of surplus, more immediate and more obvious. The 1.2 barrels that will be flowing from Alaska every day by 1980 are headed for a market that doesn't need it - the West Coast. This is mainly a problem of distribution (too much oil in the wrong part of the country), but it will still look like a "glut" to the public.
Some Alaskan crude can displace Arab oil, some of it can be shipped around to Louisiana and Texas refineries (though this cuts into company costs). But industry executives fear that a West Coast "glut" may be unavoidable - unless they are permitted to export some of the Alaskan crude to Japan.
So here is a ripening political problem& exporting oil to a foreign country, in order to preserve the profit margins of oil companies is not exactly harmonious with the "energy crisis" rhetoric. The President must grant permission for exports but either chamber of Congress has 60 days to veto it. If it comes to that, the issue of oil surplus will be joined.
In the meantime, the Carter administration has been discussing, in preliminary leaves several other measures which would also have the effect of "mopping up" some of that extra oil.
The Carter energy plan already calls for cutting back oil production at the government-owned Elk Hills field in California, from a potential of 220,000 barrels per day or more to 80,000. Last week, in a budget meeting Carter raised the possibility of shutting down Elk Hills even further - a move which would symbolize the "rationing" of production.
The administration is also considering a faster timetable for its supposed strategic petroleum reserves, now pegged at 1 billion barrels by 1985. This involves buying oil from the Arab nations or fram American producers and pumping it back into the ground, to be sotred in salt domes as an insurance policy agaisnt another oil embargo of a Middle East war which might cut off U.S. supplies. The reserve purchases also would have the net effect of absorbing some of that surplus capacity.
If you take the long view of all these matters, it is clear that the government energy planners are in a kind of double bind - the more they seem to succeed in forestalling an energy "gap," the more they will seem to refute their own original warnings of disaster. That is the charitable view.
On the other side, there is still an array of skeptical economists and businessmen, including some executives in the oil industry, who feel that the "energy crisis" has been grossly exaggerated in the Carter adminsitration and the so-called "gap" will not materialize by 1985, if ever, unless government regulation creates one.
The future, indeed, may be an era of confliciting signals on energy - an oscillation between temporary "gluts" and "bumps." The "bumps" will be like last winter's natural gas shortage, which is followed by this summer's record-high stocks of gasoline. The two are not unrelated: a very cold winter pushed up the refining of heating oil - a process which also produces gasoline.
So the public sees contradictory messages in the news Carter's chief energy adviser, James R. Schlesinger, was making ominous headlines last week about the possibility of rationing or closing gas stations on Sundays, in order to save gasoline. Meanwhile, the oil companies are said to be raising their sales quotas this summer, attempting to unload their gasoline stocks.
"The majors are pushing very hard in trying to move gasoline," said John Buckley, vice president of North East Petroleum in Boston. "Margins are thin or next to nonexistent. There is a big overhang of available supplies of gasoline."