The United States will consider selling Alaskan oil to Israel if Israel asks for assistance in meeting its energy requirements because of the cutoff of shipments from its principal supplier, Iran.
The United States promised, as part of the 1975 Sinai accords, to act as Israel's supplier of last resort if that nation were cut off from other sources. State Department spokesman Hodding Carter told reporters yesterday that Israel so far has not asked the United States to honor the pledge.
Nevertheless, a senior interagency planning group has been weighing methods of meeting that request, should it be made.
The sale of Alaskan crude is one option under consideration. Others include using U.S. "good offices" to encourage non-Arab oil exporters to sell to Israel, or selling the Israelis oil from U.S. government-owned reserves on public lands.
Iran, the world's largest non-Arab oil exporting country, had been supplying Israel's 80,000 barrels a day -- until the recent civil disturbances that shut down Iranian oil production.
Iranian opposition leaders, including Prime Minister-designate Shahpour Bakhtiar and religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Komeini, have repeatedly said that once Iran's oil production is restored they would not permit sales to Israel or South Africa.
One senior administration official, who asked not to be identified, charcterized the Israeli oil situation as "serious but not at extremis ." At the Energy Department, another official said, "The Israelis have only received a few shipments of oil from Iran since November."
Over recent years the Israelis have built up an enormous stockpile of oil, equivalent to nearly one year's needs. To date, the Israelis have not begun a major withdrawal from their stockpile, but could be forced to in the months ahead if they have contininuing difficulty buying oil from non-Arab sources.
The Israelis also pump nearly 40,000 barrels a day in oil from the Alma oil fields in the Sinai desert. But these fields are claimed by Egypt, and would eventually be returned to Egypt if an Israeli-Egyptian peace settlement were reached.
The Energy Department says Israel imported an average of 125,000 barrels of oil a day over the last year.
So far, Israel has been able to make up much of the difference through oil purchases from Mexico's state-run oil company, Petroleos Mexicanos, amounting to about 45,000 barrels a day, and from African and Latin American oil exporters.
Details about Israel's oil supply arrangements are closely held, for fear that disclosure could result in public pressure from Arab producers in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to cut Israel off.
In recent years, however, the Israelis are known to have been highly resourceful in obtaining oli on the world market. On a number of occasions, for example, the Israelis have bought Soviet oil exports destined for European markets by disguising the destination of tankers, according to one knowledgable international oil source.
If the administration were to send Alaskan oil to Israel -- which would require congressional approval -- it would solve a major political problem for the Energy Department and bring millions of dollars in higher profits to the North Slope oil producers.
So far President Carter has overruled Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr.'s requests to ask Congress to approve sales of Alaskan oil to other countries because of the unfavorable reaction from Congress. As a result, surplus Alaskan oil has created an oil glut of more than 500,000 barrels a day on the West Coast.
Administration officials and oil industry executives say that if Carter did propose selling Alaskan oil to Israel, it would win vigorous congressional approval from oil industry supporters and friends of Israel on Capitol Hill.