President Carter and the Congress have been so busy in the trenches, battling over solutions to the so-called "energy crisis," that they seem to have missed the good news from petroleum experts:
The world is not running out of oil and gas after all, not for a long time.
A substantial array of respectable sources agrees on this much:
The threat of "crisis" is not nearly as imminent as it was originally portrayed in the gloomy warnings of the Carter administration. The possibility of an abrupt oil shortage is now considered unlikely for at least 12 to 15 years. The shock of another sudden price escalation, likewise, will not threaten western nations before the 1990s. Around the world, nations are finding and beginning to produce new oil that was overlooked or undiscovered a few years ago.
In sum, the future energy problems look quite different today - and considerably less menacing - than they did 15 months ago when President Carter proposed his five-part energy package.
This message has emanated from various U.S. and international experts, month after month, for the past year, yet it has not made much impact on official Washington. The implications are so much at odds with the heavy rhetoric of the energy debate that neither the Carter administration nor its adversaries on Capitol Hill seems willing to take these new predictions seriously.
Carter's energy secretary, James R. Schlesinger, is sticking to his original dire forecast - that sometime between now and 1985 the world will suffer a terrible crisis if the United States doesn't adopt the administration's proposals for conservation by tax-and-price increases. Schlesinger dismisses holders of contrary opinion as "energy optimists."
The American public, however, has never taken the "energy crisis" as seriously as do the politicians and technocrats of Washington, who periodically scold the nation for its ignorance or greed. The public skepticism is encouraged, if not fully confirmed, by the optimistic revisions in recent forecasts.
A Schlesinger aide, after arguing vigorously against the competing forecasts, offered a mild concession to the possibility that they are right and the Carter administration is wrong. "These guys may be right," he allowed, "but it's the government's functions to do the kind of worst-case planning and prepare for it. Our view is, fine, maybe they'll be right, maybe the crunch doesn't come until the 1990s, in which case we will have more time. That doesn't mean you don't have to set up the machinery."
In the meantime, the world markets are glutted with oil, particularly on the West Coast of the United States. This condition of surplus, which everyone agrees will last at least another year or two, appears to complicate Carter's selling job on Capitol Hill, but no one claims that the current oil glut is the main reason members of Congress are stalled over raising natural gas prices or taxing domestic crude oil up to the world market level.
Rep. Abner Mikva (D-Ill.), who supports the president's program, thinks the oil glut simply gives politicians one more reason to resist measures they don't much like in the first place. "It's hard to explain to people that you're going to raise prices and pretend there's a shortage when there isn't one," Mikva said.
In the long-range future, beyond the next couple of years of surplus, all predictions become less reliable, but outside the Carter administration there is a lengthening list of people who disagree with Schlesinger's forecast of crisis by 1985.
The list includes some people who should know. Ali Attiga, secretary general of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC), assured a group of European businessmen last month that he now sees the world getting through the 1980s without any crisis of oil shortage and, thus, no sudden upward shock in Arab oil prices.
The Trilateral Commission, comprised of corporate leaders and government technocrats from North America, Western Europe and Japan, issued a new energy outlook that gently disagreed with former Trilateralist Jimmy Carter on the shape of the energy problem. "After analyzing recent forecasts, the authors judge it unlikely that there would be any sharp and sudden upward movement in real prices of oil for at least the next 10 to 15 years - a judgment less alarmist than some others," the Trilateral Commission report noted.
One of its co-authors, former federal energy administrator John C. Sawhill, explained the different outlook as a more reasonable form of persuasion.
"The way to characterize the problem is not to try to scare people into thinking that there's going to be an immediate shortage and long lines at gasoline pumps in the 1980s," Sawhill said, "but rather that by the 1990s we're going to have to develop a new generation of energy technology."
Other "energy optimists" include such conservative organizations as the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation. The industry oriented foundation concluded that "oil shortage before the end of the century is a possibility but not a probability."
Some independent petroleum experts express their skepticism about a coming crisis in much stronger terms and they worry that political decisions will proceed now on wrong assumptions.
Bruce Wilson, an investment banker who specializes in petroleum, describes a wide variety of new developments, ranging from Canadian natural gas to Mexican oil discoveries, that argue for legislative caution.
"It is less certain now that we need the program drafted in 1977," Wilson said. "A reasonable man would look at the situation today and question whether it makes sense to go ahead."
Peter Odell of the Netherlands, an energy adviser to the British government on North Sea oil development, argues that the long-range future of oil is bright indeed. He predicts that world production should continue to grow for 50 more years - until the year 2025 - and the oil industry may triple its size in that period.
"Even using relatively conservative figures for future oil availability," Ordell wrote this month in the Guardian, "there are still at least two generations available to us to undertake the necessary research and development on alternative sorts of energy. This gives us time enough to weigh very carefully the pros and cons of different options so that we do not have to be rushed into premature decisions on issues such as the rapid development of nuclear power."
The Dutch expert, incidentally, thinks the American public is on the right track in suspecting that the oil companies invented the crisis for their own benefit. "The so-called 'generally accepted oil shortage,'" Odell wrote, "is the outcome of commercially oriented interests rather" than a statement of the essential realities of the oil resources of the world. Oil companies are, of course, privileged to try to create the environment in which their own best interests are served, but there is no reason why the whole western world community should accept the companies' evaluation as the last or even the most appropriate word on the subject."
Odell cites three recent international surveys, conducted by institutes in France, Austria and the Soviet Union, that concluded world oil reserves are two-to-six times larger than the conventional wisdom of the past.
In the last year, Mexico has provided the petroleum world with a stunning example of how the old estimates oil potential can be overtaken by events. Seven years ago, the oil reserves of Mexico were listed at a piddling 3.6 billion barrels, about one-tenth of U.S. reserves. By 1974, the Central Intelligence Agency reported that Mexico might hold as much as 16 billion barrels.
With more aggressive exploration, Mexico is now unofficially listed at somewhere in the range of 100 billion barrels - second only to Saudi Arabia and possibly Iraq - an estimate accepted privately by the Department of Energy.
The U.S. government is negotiating now for a trade and production agreement with Mexico that would insure development of that oil and gas and its delivery to American consumers, which could reduce the U.S. dependence on Middle East oil considerably. Mexico, in any case, intends to become a major exporter by the mid-1980s, selling 3 million to 4 million barrels a day.
Iraq, will used to be listed with reserves of 45 billion barrels, is now considered by experts to have at least 100 billion and is beginning to show greater interest in marketing that oil to the West.
A long list of other concrete changes, less spectacular than the Mexico finds but cumulative perhaps as important, is cited by petroleum experts to support a more relaxed view of the future. Important natural gas deposits are being developed for export in Canada and Pakistan. Countries like Peru are becoming oil exporters and India is developing selfsufficiency.
Each of these and other developments will take some pressure off the world's prize supply of oil, the Middle East. Some experts like Wilson foresee a continuing period in which there is "tremendous downward pressure" on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries" (OPEC) oil price, which in real terms has declined since the price shock of 1973, due to inflation.
The energy outlook also looks modestly brighter in the United States. The first trauma that led to public formulations of an "energy crisis" occurred when U.S. production of oil peaked in 1970 and began to decline. The same thing happened to U.S. natural gas production in 1972. The awareness of "finite resources" suddenly became a very serious issue, followed abruptly by the Arab oil embargo and four-fold price increase.
U.S. oil and gas production has turned around in the last year and increased modestly for the first time in five years. This is due to the new oil from Alaska's North Slope and offshore drilling for natural gas which started in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, imports declined modestly and the domestic problem at the moment is too much oil and gas.
The "energy optimists," as Schlesinger calls them, cite three fundamental reasons for the brighter picture, involving both the market forces of resource economics and the influence of government regulation.
OPEC's sharp price increases five years ago stunned the world and made a lot of companies and nations go looking for new oil and gas. In addition, previously known deposits of natural gas and oil, which were regarded as uneconomic when crude oil was at $2.50 a barrel, became worth developing when oil was at $12.50 a barrel.
Consumers, meanwhile, tried to use less - thus slowing down the natural increase in world consumption - and governments, including the United States, imposed conservation regulations designed to save oil by introducing new technology which is more efficient.
A leading example is the much-maligned American automobiles. Faced with energy scare, Congress three years ago ordered Detroit to make smaller, lighter cars that are more fuel efficient. That changeover is under way and government energy officials predict that, even if Congress never passes another "gas guzzler" bill, U.S. consumption of gasoline will peak in the next couple of years and begin to decline - even with more cars and trucks, and more miles driven by Americans.
Schlesinger contends that the new optimism is ill-founded and the conflicting projections are all flawed one way or another, either by overstating the production potential of the Arab nations or by assuming a slow-growth economic future that would require less energy but would also be disastrous for the United States and its industrial allies.
"While novel and optimistic estimates of energy supply and demand do add spice to the energy debate," Schlesinger sarcastically told an Ohio audience last month, "the ultimate question comes down to whether the United States should base its policies and our national future on the hope that the prevailing projections might be wrong."
In Congress, Schlesinger is maneuvering to hold the fragile support for the compromise natural gas bill, a gradual schedule for lifting price controls, and he still hopes to revive the measure that nearly everyone else considers dead - the crude oil tax that would fill President Carter's promise to European allies by raising U.S. oil prices to the world level.
Rep. Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.), an administration supporter, thinks President Carter could wisely drop the issue of a crude oil tax until next year because the brighter forecasts give the country more time to settle the issue of oil pricing. Getting a tax bill this year cannot be done, he said, "without making enormous' concessions to the oil companies in other ways than pricing."
The Western European nations and Japan are pushing for higher U.S. prices - not necessarily because of oil shortages - but because the lower-priced domestic oil in the United States gives American manufacturers a trade advantage. Cheaper oil means lower prices for U.S. products sold abroad.
"There was a long time in the 1950s." Eckhardt noted, "when our domestic oil was priced higher than theirs and you didn't see the Europeans doing anything about it. The heavens didn't fall nor was there any loud cry that it was destroying the economies of the world. Why should the world fall apart if we have a little manufacturing advantage.?"
A handful in Congress have felt, from the beginning, that the "energy crisis" was manufactured by the oil industry and they have fought any of the measures to raise prices and taxes on consumers.
One of them, Sen. James Abourezk (D-S.D.) plans to filibuster once more against the natural gas bill when the conference report comes to the Senate floor next month. This time, Abourezk may be joined by some pro-industry conservatives such as Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) who think the deregulation compromise is worse than no bill at all.
Abourezk argues bluntly that "energy crisis" is a propaganda game to raise oil prices, nothing more.
"Not many understand that the crisis is a phony," he said. "Even if they do, they don't know what to do about it."