SOMEONE IN THE Energy Department recently leaked to several newspapers, including this one, the first results of its inquiry into the gasoline shortage. It's a preliminary survey, and more of a statistical analysis than an investigation. But it raises several interesting questions. Unfortunately, the reporting of it seems to have been caught up in the controversy that the subject of oil continually generates.
In this newspaper's original story on the study, we said that it essentially exonerated the industry of the charge of hoarding gasoline. With the wisdom of hindsight, that now looks too sweeping. The Energy Department said that it had found no evidence of hoarding. But it showed that the refiners had built up their stocks of crude oil from last January to May, while the gasoline shortage was developing.
It also showed that the refiners cut their yield of gasoline slightly in that period, while sometimes increasing their yields of jet fuel and similar products. Why? Perhaps because gasoline was under price controls. The basic cause of the shortage and the gasoline lines was, demonstrably, the shutdown of Iranian exports through the winter. But different management of the refineries could have made the shortage a little less painful.
The first press reports of this study ignited a reaction. The next round of reporting exaggerated the study's limitations, concluding that it had relied entirely on the industry for its data. That is not correct. There are variety of sources for the key statistics on oil. Generally speaking, the industry's reporting system is the fastest but the least complete. The Engery Department collects its own numbers from ships and refineries. There are customs reports. There are the production data that governments at various levels gather in the course of collecting taxes and royalties.
In the Energy Department's statistics, the figure for the most recent month is frequently the industry's, adjusted by statisticians for the further information that they expect the federal system to turn up later. As time goes on, the early figure is revised and replaced by increasingly well verified numbers from several sources. The most recent data are frequently imprecise. But there isn't much doubt about the integrity of the statistical system.
This study by the Energy Department can be taken as a useful first cut at a description of last spring's gasoline shortage. It raises many unanswered questions -- notably about the sales of gasoline outside the allocation system. But it also offers lessons. When the next crisis comes, the Energy Department is evidently going to have to pay more attention, more quickly to the management of the refineries.