A new study of the world oil market finds that balance between supply and demand is being restored and the eased situation for consumers may continue through 1980.
The report by John Lichtblau, executive director of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation Inc., says that world oil production continues to hold at record levels. Production by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has climbed steadily since January, despite the loss of all or part of strife-torn Iran's crude oil.
"Restoration of a balance between global supply and demand, ending the trauma of physical constraints on consumption, is now under way," Lichtblau's report said. He adds that if OPEC does not cut back on production and if there are no severe political disturbances, next year could be free of shortages.
But in the following year, Lichtblau warns, "the market outlook becomes potentially more troublesome."
The "emerging new balance appears very precarious and could be unsettled by visibly unstable political forces in the Middle East on the supply side and unpredictable consumer reaction on the demand side," he said.
If OPEC maintains its second-quarter output of about 31.2 million barrels a day through the rest of this year, Lichtblau said, supplies in the noncommunist world "will be adequate and stocks at year end will be slightly higher than at the end of 1978."
Lichtblau's guardedly optimistic reading of world oil markets for the next year and a half is shared in many industry circles.
At Standard Oil Co. of California, Tom Burns said, "Our view is the combination of economic slowdown -- which lowers oil demand -- coupled with current levels of production will leave the world in supply-demand balance over the next six months."
The focus over the next year, however, is on Saudi Arabia, Iran and the actions of the consuming nations.
The Central Intelligence Agency, in a recent unclassified report, noted that 60 percent of the world's oil reserves are controlled by countries that have imposed arbitrary production ceilings.
Lichtblau's study, entitled "World Oil Perspective, 1979 to 1981," likewise focuses on production ceilings as the major factor in whether the world will move toward a marginal oil shortage or a glut.
Under optimistic conditions, Lichtblau said, OPEC would produce about 32 million barrels of oil a day. Under pessimistic conditions with Saudi Arabia cutting back oil output 1 million barrels a day, Iran reining in production 700,000 barrels, and others cutting back, Lichtblau said OPEC output could be down to 28.3 million barrels a day, a loss of 3.7 million barrels.
Lichtblau said, "If none of this volume [3.7 million barrels a day] is available in 1980, world supplies will not be adequate . . . if all the volume is available a modest surplus will exist throughout the year."
Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil exporter, has twice this year agreed to raise production above its self-imposed 8.5-million-barrel-a-day ceiling. In January the kingdom announced it would produce up to 9.5 million barrels a day to make up for lost Iranian exports.
As Iran restored exports in the spring, the Saudis again lowered production to below 9 million barrels.
Then, after a series of contradictory statements, Saudi Arabia against raised production to its current 9.5 million barrels a day.
While the Saudis have never linked their production increases explicitly to movement on the Middle East peace settlements, many analysts in private say Riyadh may decide to reduce production again in October or November if the Saudis are not satisfied with U.S. efforts to win Israeli concessions on the Palestinian question.
The Saudi royal family and technocrats also are divided over whether Riyadh should continue to accumulate billions of dollars in surplus revenues that are eroded by inflation.
The result of these and other factors has left many intelligence and oil company analysts uncertain over Saudi intentions.
Iran, which was the cartel's second leading producer, poses similar uncertainties.
Despite murky reports and private warnings uttered by former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger and others that Tehran is now producing far less than it publicly declares, most experts as well as State Department officials say Iran is producing 3.7 million to 3.9 million barrels a day, about 3.1 million barrels of which are exported.
(Since the Iranian revolution, the U.S. share of Iranian oil exports has gone up, not down.)
Standard Oil Co. of Indiana's chief economist, Ted Eck, said, "It is widely believed their [Iran's] production capability is declining. The concern is that they have not been doing workovers" -- essentially oil field maintenance.
At the State Department a more optimistic view is offered by a mid-level official who said, "Iran can produce 4 million barrels a day on a sustained nasis. Uncertainties there are political, not technical."