Drilling for domestic sources of oil and natural gas during the first nine months of this year declined despite sharp increases in oil and gas prices charged by the oil industry under President Carter's lifting of energy price controls.
"It looks like we will not drill as many holes this year as we did last year," said Energy Department oil and gas specialist F. Lisle Reed. Drilling last year set a record for well completions.
The decline in drilling this year took place as the president and then-energy secretary James R. Schlesinger argued that allowing the industry to charge higher prices was necessary to spur exploration and increase production.
While some oilmen and spokesmen for the Independent Petroleum Association of America hold out the possibility that the industry will complete more oil wells this year than last year, all agree that the drilling slump was at its worst last spring, just as the gasoline crunch hit.
The Department of Energy and major oil company officials, however, remain hopeful that drilling activity will continue upward in the years ahead as a result of higher oil and gas prices available under decontrol.
According to the Petroleum Information Corp., a Denver-based industry data consultant, there were 5.4 percent fewer well completions during the first nine months of this year than last year.
Petroleum Information reported that through September there were 33,105 wells drilled, 1,876 fewer than for the corresponding period last year. Discoveries of new natural gas fields, though, were up slightly compared with last year while new oil field discoveries dropped.
Martin Reilly, a spokesman for the IPAA, said, "We don't have any single explanation for it," adding that the current number of oil rigs drilling is higher than last year. Reilly quotes many independent oilmen as saying that by the end of the year they may surpass last year's record for well completions.
A recent report from the Hughes Tool Co. said that there are 2,391 oil rigs in use,about 2 percent more than last year.
A Gulf Oil Corp. executive said that the drop in drilling "is probably a temporary phenomenon" and that Gulf, like many of the larger firms, plans to drill more wells this year thatn in 1978.
Another factor oilmen cinted for this year's spring drilling slump was poor weather conditions.
Other analysts listed uncertainty over the implementation of last year's Natural Gas Policy Act phasing out price controls.
During the gas bill debate in Congress, the oil industry and the Carter administration joined forces in saying that higher prices were necessary to find more oil. The gas bill provides the industry with increased wellhead prices, and eliminates controls by 1984.
In a report released by the Natural Gas Supply Committee, the major oil companies' lobbying arm in Washington, the industry said that "unless economic incentives are adequate to encourage sharply increased drilling" the nation could face another gas shortage.
David Foster, the committee's executive director, said he believes that Congress may have to raise gas prices again next year to spur drilling activity again.
A longtime opponent of higher gas prices, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D.-Ohio), disagrees. He said the oild companies want "to get every last cent they can."