Like a fat Christmas stocking, President Carter's plan to decontrol U.S. crude oil prices has something in it for everyone, including the oil companies.
Should Congress refuse to pass his proposed windfall profit tax - and there are already reports that it is in trouble - then most of the goodies would end up with the companies.
But having broken the link between decontrol and higher consumer prices on the one hand and a tax to capture the windfall on the other, Carter is confident Congress will pass the tax. "Otherwise," said one key aide, " $5 billion to $6 billion a year will go to the oil companies, which they didn't earn and don't need."
Carter has, after May 31, full discretion to end the controls that have held U.S. crude oil prices about $4 a barrel below world levels, and he will use it between then and Sept. 30, 1981, whether or nor Congress passes the tax.
The effects on the economy will be small as will those from the other actions he announced last night not related to decontrol. The administration estimates that decontrol will increase this year's inflation rate by 0.1 percentage point and have a cumulative effect of only 0.75 percentage point between now and 1982.
By the projections of Carter's advisers, the price of a gallon of gasoline will go up about 4 cents by 1982, much less than it has risen already this year. Other estimates range up to 7 cents.
Administration economists believe the plan will slow economic growth by less than 0.1 percantage point this year, and between 0.1 percentage point and 0.2 percentage point in 1980 and 1981. If needed, this could be offset by other steps to give the economy a boost, though with inflation running the way it is, that's the last thing the administration is worrying about at the moment.
There are some significant reasons to decontrol. It would lead to more domestic production and less consumption of oil while eliminating some enormous transfers of income from one oil company to another. And all that would mean fewer oil imports.
Top energy officials said yesterday that their computers tell them the plan will mean an added 740,000 barrels a day of oil production in 1985. They are uncertain that it will be that much, but are sure that it will be substantial.
Consumption will be cut by about one-third that much over the same period, they said.
In an economy that consumes about 19 million barrels of oil a day, that's not very much. And it underscores the fact that none of Carter's proposals will produce any dramatic changes that most Americans will notice. In fact, the most noticeable change may be warmer summer and cooler winter temperatures in nonresidential buildings, which will be mandatory if Congress approves a Carter request submitted last month.
But with all the emotion tied to oil prices and oil company profits - which Carter fed anew in his address last night - many of his detailed proposals are intended to blunt complaints that he is caving in to the oil barons.
To ensure passage of his windfall profit tax, and to deflect further the political sting of decontrol. Carter plans to spend the proposed tax money in ways that would reach just about every group likely to be complaining.
The poor would get some kind of grant worth about $100 a year. Nobody has quite figured out how it should be paid as yet, but one official did say it would not be an energy version of food stamps. The payment should help defuse some liberal opposition.
There's a "minority set-aside program" intended to garner some support from blacks and other minority groups. Under it, minority-owned businesses would get a share of the money the Department of Energy would be doling out from the new Energy Security Fund, into which the windfall taxes are to be paid.
New England, the region most heavily dependent upon oil would get three goodies. First, it would have a piece of the nation's strategic petroleum reserve held in tanks in its own backyard instead of all being put into salt domes on the Gulf Coast. Hawaii would get part of the reserve, too.
Second, there would be new money for so-called "low-head hydro" power - small dams that could be used to generate power. One study estimates there are 1,900 existing dams in New England that could be tapped for power. And third, northern New England residents particularly are expected to like the proposed new tax credit for buying wood-burning stoves.
Then there's an exemption for gasohol, an alcohol based gasoline subsitute made from products such as corn, from the four-cent-a-gallon federal gasoline tax. And there are new tax credits for solar installations on the farm. That should make the farm bloc happy.
For those who like solar energy, there are new tax credits for passive types of solar equipment installed in new buildings.
And last, but not least, there would be more money for a variety of energy research and demonstration projects that would land in some lucky congressional district, loan guarantees for other projects, and a $3-a-barrel tax break for shale oil.
When all is said and done, the administration estimates that oil company revenues would be $4.7 billion higher in 1982 because of decontrol, with nearly half of that going to royalty-holders for state severance taxes and for state and local income taxes. In other words, the companies would get to keep about $2.5 billion more.
Meanwhile, the federal government would be getting about $5.9 billion through its windfall profit taxes. If the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries raises its prices faster than the general rate of inflation, everybody would end up with more, just as consumers would pay more. Those are not very large numbers given the size of the American economy.