The abrupt gasoline shortage experienced by motorists this weekend is far more acute at the pump than the actual shortfall in the national supply line according to government and industry experts.
But at the same time the United States is almost alone among the major industrial nations in experiencing any serious shortage.
Interviews with more than 50 federal state and local government officials oil executives and industry analysts offer wildly contradictory accounts of conditions in the nation. And the Department of Energy has few solid figures on current gasoline consumption and overall supplies.
But a series of factors, including government policy the Iranian revolution and confusion within the industry has triggered a surge in demand - even panic buying in some parts of the country.
The situation is most acute in California, where last week three countries instituted an odd-even system of gasoline allocation.
The California scramble for a spot in the nearest available gasoline line has produced some bizarre vignettes.
In Malibu, a pregnant woman was beaten by a station customer who mistakenly thought she was cutting into illegible.
In Los Angeles a 23 year-old man cut in front of 50 cars and started to pump gas into his maroon and white Cadillac. When angry motorists got out of their cars to protest the man tool out a derringer pistol and placed it next to his thigh causing, as the police report later said, "the irate motorists to retreat to their cars." He was arrested.
In Santa Monica a Pep Boys auto supply store sold 250 gasoline cans in 10 minutes.
In Sacramento, politicians debated whether Gov. Edmund G. Jerry Brown J. has benefitted politically from his decision to authorize county allocation plans.
While President Carter dashed out at Congress for rejecting his gasoline rationing plan David J. Bardin, head of the Energy Department's oil regulatory programs, predicted gas supplies will be very tight for awhile, but whether we have a shortage depends on motorist conservation response." As for supplies this month Bardin said that the nation's gas stations would received about 92 percent of what they sold during May 1978.
Asked about the causes of the gas lines, Bardin and Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger offer a nowfamiliar account, citing the shortages created by the Iranian on shutdown and the surge in gasoline consumption along with Carter's personal order that the refineries reduce gasoline production this summer to build up heating and fuel oil stocks for winter.
At Shell Oil Co., chief executive officer John Bookout says, "It looks like the United States has absorbed a disproportionate share" of the world shortage. He blamed Schlesinger for asking U.S. companies two month ago not to complete overseas for high-priced crude oil, sold at spot market prices of up to $22 a barrel.
Schlesinger hoped this would put downward pressure on soaring prices. The effort failed and the administration now is reversing its signals to the major oil companies. Meanwhile refiners say that they wish they had more crude oil inventories and would now if Schlesinger had not forced the United States to bear the brunt of the crude shortage.
This view is shared by Samuel Van Vactor, Oregon's state energy planner, who lays further blame on the Energy Department. "The DOE royally screwed up. A good portion of the shortage was created by the federal government's regulators," he says. When DOE published now updated regulations for gasoline allocation, Van Vactor says, it was a signal for the major oil companies to slash their allocations of 95 and 90 percent to 85, 80, and 70, because the companies did not know for sure what kind of exceptions they would have to plan for under DOE rules.
Richard Vind, executive vice president of Thrifty Oil Co., one of California's largest nonbranded service station chains, says, "Refiners I know have deliberately cut their allocation [WORD ILLEGIBLE] customers, anticipating [WORD ILLEGIBLE] would be a significant upward adjustment in demands later in the month under the DOE regulations."
The DOE, Vind says, "is creating new problems, instead of solving old ones."
Like other oil executive, however, he says that the department is in an untenable position, squeezed from every direction.
Still another question is why the nation's refinery output, stated in percentage of capacity actually being used is low.
Schlesinger and Carter have said they want to ensure that the nation's fuel oil stocks are high for winter, even at the expense of gasoline production.
Frank Collins, of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, says the companies are using this as "an excuse to hold back gasoline production to put the thumb screws on for decontorl."
Another critic, Jack Blum of the Indepedent Gasoline Marketers Association, says, "There simply is no satisfactory explanation for it."
Shell's Bookout, who agrees with the trust of the administration's policy, says that if left to its own direction, the oil industry would not reduce gasoline output as much in order to add to fuel and heating oil inventories but that now they have no choice but to follow DOE's directions.
Dan Lundberg, publisher of a respected oil industry trade letter specializing in gasoline marketing, says the conditions for the shortage at the pump originated last winter when wholesalers, called "jobbers" in the industry, began urging industrial and commercial cusomers to install their own tanks to prevent running short later in the year. Because of this and fears about the Iran shortfall, there was a massive amount of stock-building between the refinery and the gas pump.
Consequently, the American petroleum Institute and DOE were reporting that "demand" for gasoline increased 5 percent or more during the first two months compared with a year ago while real gasoline consumption, according to Lundberg, was much lower.
American Petroleum Institute statistics show that last week gasoline inventories increased marginally compared to the weekbefore, but were still about 6.6 percent below a year ago.Gasoline production, meanwhile, was down about 3 percent compared to a year before.
API and DOE do not list actual gasoline consumption.
Instead they rely on state gasoline sales tax reports, which come months later, in place of actual demand numbers, they attempt to estimate consumption on the basis of withdrawals from so-called primary stocks at the refinery.
In reality, Lundberg says real gasoline demand this year has not grown more than 2 percent over last year and he says, will show no growth for April compared to a year ago.
Industry executives such as Ted Eck, Standard Oil of Indiana's chief economist, agree Eck says, "I would be real surprised if gasoline consumption this year actually rose more than 2 percent over last year, and by 1982 or 1983 will peak and then begin declining, because of better mileage cars."
On top of the stockpiling early in the year that Lundberg emphasizes, the panic buying at the gas pumps - with millions of motorists topping off their tanks - has added a stiff jolt to the system.
Blum compares it to "everybody going to the bank at once."
That is especially true in California, and according to Marshall Cherkas, a Los Angeles psychoanalyst, "the deprivation is like taking the air away.
He says the long lines and the reductions in driving are "relatively modest" side effects. "But their is this unconscious symbolism - there could be a food shortage, a shortage of everything, and people are unconscously reacting to that," he said."All of this produces fantasy. Maybe a hugeoil cartel is engaged in a conspiracy, may be the government is fooling us; maybe the service station employes have hidden oil supplies."
Californians are not alone in wondering whether they are victims of some industry plot designed to drive up prices.
DOE's Bardin does not rule this out entirely, but is very firm in saying, "We have found absoulutey no clear evidence of that. We do not see evidence of a problem of manipulation by the oil companies.
He does say, however, "There is a question whether price controls are really holding the price down. We are getting closer and closer to 99 cents a gallon."
Jim Miller, a Tampa, Fla. Standard dealer and legislative chairman of the American Gasoline Retailers Assn., offers an answer confirming those fears. "I feel like everybody else does: The oil producers and refiners created a shortage to get the price up. Also, they're trying to eliminate the lesser dealers like myself."
Proof of the Miller allegations is simply not available, although senior DOE officials suggest that the 1973-1974 embargo experience is worth reflecting on.
When the six-month embargo ended, the nation had built up enormous stocks of heating and fuel oil, at the expense of gasoline production.
Meanwhile, because of market pressures and the oil cartel price increases had risen about 12 cents during the first half of 1974. So far this year, they have risen 11.9 cents during the first four months.
While it is difficult to tell who has benefitted from the shortage, one thing is clear. The only real loser so far is Carter.
One of California's most astute politicians, normally pro-Carter and no fan of Gov. Brown, said Carter has sunk himself with California votes by refusing to recognize the seriousness of the crisis.
"People out here didn't particularly like Carter before but they also had no special reason to dislike him," said this politician. "Now they have a solid reason. Their life styles are threatened in some cases their jobs. And Carter is showing to those people he can't govern the country.
Overall in California, Brown was given good marks. Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, a black legislator from south central Los Angeles said. "Gov. Brown isn't one of my favourites, but I think he's helped the situation Waters., whose district includes Walts says that the gas crisis is imposing a special burden on poor persons in general and blacks in particular because they often occupy low-paying jobs and are suspect for any lack of punctuality. "This situation has created an enormous anxiety in my district," Waters said, remarking that many people in Watts drive older, bigger cars that are notorious gas guzzlers.