If there were another oil embargo tomorrow, America would turn to its strategic petroleum reserve and find that it has fallen 180 million barrels behind schedule and is marked with almost $1 billion in cost overruns.
That is what senior administration and Energy Department officials say in private when pressed for an accounting of the strategic petroleum reserve program, which has been faced with management and technical mishaps, environmental snarls, and a major oil fire since its creation in 1975.
The oil reserve problems also pose some prickly choices for President Carter who only last year doubled President Ford's goal, calling for 1 billion barrels of oil to be stored in the ground by 1985.
Over the next weeks, Carter will be forced to choose between Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger's requests to step up strategic reserve spending, including a measure to "reprogram" $1 billion ind DOE funds for construction at the department's storage sites, and the president's own goal of holding down government spending.
Since the program's inception, DOE and its predecessor agency, the Federal Energy Administration, have spent $3.1 billion on oil purchases and $655 million on facilities.
Because the cost of storage has risen from an extimated $1.50 a 42-gallon barrel just a year ago to more than $3 a barrel today, DOE has gone to the Office of Management and Budget and the Congress for authority to shift $1 billion in funds to cover the cost overruns.
Beyond that, DOE's budget planners have been forced to revise sharply upward their estimates of the cost of construction for facilities to store the first 250 million barrels, by 165 percent.
Cost overruns are not the oil reserves' only problems.
DOE's accelerated reserve program called for having 250 million barrels in storage by year-end. Department officials say the program at best would have about 68 million barrels in storage by January. Yesterday, DOE spokesman James Bishop Jr. said that the department will have 250 million barrels in storage by February 1980.
Asked about the oil reserve program's mishaps, one top Energy Department official said, "It is DOE's tar baby."
Energy Department officials attribute many of the problems to overly ambitious goals mandated by Congress and the Carter administration, and unanticipated technical difficulties.
Beyond that, DOE officials say that no shortage program on this scale has ever been undertaken before.
As a consequence of these difficulties, the cost estimates and the anticipated milestone dates were well of target.
To provide greater control over the program, Schlesinger yesterday announced that the storage office head, Joseph DeLuca, will now report to the DOE undersecretary rather than to the assistant secretary for resource applications. DeLuca, 50, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, has generally won high marks for his efforts to turn the program around since joining the department last summer.
DeLuca, a former Air Force comptroller, has been exploring the possibility of contracting out the storage program in so-called "turnkey" arrangements with oil or construction companies.
Some DOE officials, however, say that DeLuca's move was in part targeted at trying counteract some of the fire the department is expected to draw at hearings Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) has called next Monday on the oil reserve program.
Dingell's hearings, scheduled before the House subcommittee on energy and power he chairs, will focus on DOE's request to shift funds appropriated by Congress to buy oil to pay for storage facility construction. The first formal word Dingell's staff says the Congress received that the program was having financial problems came in an October letter the agency sent Congress asking for authority to reprogram funds. CAPTION: Picture, JAMES R. SCHLESINGER . . . seeks to step up storage spending