The United States will press the industrialized Western nations to cut their oil imports another 1 million barrels a day, diplomatic sources here said.
However, they said, Washington is backing away from plans to seek sanctions against nations that exceed internationally agreed-upon import ceilings.
The United States previously had been reported ready to take a very tough line to get its partners in the 20-nation International Energy Agency, who meet here beginning Monday, to agree to put teeth in accords to cut oil consumption.
U.S. officials have encountered resistance to their approach, notably from the West Germans, who take the view that Europe historically has had a good energy conservation record compared to the United States, and that the United States is a Johnny-come-lately which still has much further to go than Europe to eliminate waste in energy consumption.
The Americans have been urging on the IEA the need to show serious efforts and results before the oil price-setting meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Caracas, Venezuela, a week from Monday. The meeting of the IEA energy ministers here was originally scheduled for January and was moved up to precede the OPEC meeting at American insistence.
The Americans have also been campaigning to erase the bad image of the United States as an energy-waster, arguing that it is outdated. U.S. officials point out, for example, that American oil imports were 7.9 million barrels a day for the four weeks ending Nov. 30, representing a 4.6 percent decrease compared to the same period last year.
The West German reply is that much of this improvement is attributable to economic downturn in the United States and that it makes no sense for Europe to plan itself into a recession just to match the U.S. percentages.
Among the sanctions that the United States had been proposing was the exclusion from the IEA's standby emergency oil-sharing setup of any country that exceeds its oil import ceilings. The sharing plan provides for the distribution of available oil imports to IEA members on a proportional basis if the available supply should fall 7 percent or more below existing levels.
The U.S. delegation, headed by Energy Secretary Charles Duncan, is expected to encounter no resistance to another proposal for detailed quarterly reporting on how countries perform on their commitments. Publication of the findings would provide a basis for singling out countries that do not meet their commitments.
Average oil imports of the 20 member states, grouping all the major non-communist industrial oil consumers except France, are expected to be 25 million barrels a day this year. The IEA already had agreed to set a target of 24 million barrels a day for 1980, and the United States is now seeking a cut to 23 million.
U.S. sources would not discuss in advance of Monday's meeting what proportion of that conservation burden the United States would propose to take on itself.
The nine-member European Economic Community has agreed to an overall ceiling for 1980, but resisted setting country-by-country goals until 1981. The Americans are pressing for immediate national commitments from the Europeans. How detailed the commitments are will be a test of the success of Monday's conference, energy officials said.
The U.S. insistence on further import cuts is based on the assumption, shared by IEA and international oil industry analysts, that there will be at least 2 million barrels a day less available from OPEC next year. It is generally assumed that Iran will wind up cutting its current production of about 3.5 million barrels a day approximately by the 700,000 barrels a day that the United States used to take before it embargoed Iranian oil.
Libya and Abu Dhabi each have stated their intention to lower production by 100,000 barrels a day. Kuwait, Nigeria and Venezuela are expected to cut production by 200,000 barrels a day each. Those bits and pieces total 800,000 barrels a day.
The big question is whether Saudi Arabia, now producing at 9.5 million barrels a day, is willing to continue to exceed its own official production limit of 8.5 million barrels a day.
Their is a widespread view among oil analysts that economic recession may reduce demand for oil automatically by the 2 million barrels a day that they expect the OPEC nations to reduce their 1980 production.
Another factor is that IEA members have been doing an extraordinary amount of stockpiling, estimated at 1 million barrels a day. While no one knows exactly what state and company storage capacity really is, it is assumed by the IEA that there is not much spare storage capacity left and that once the storage tanks are all filled and the spare oil tankers are loaded up, demand will fall naturally.
One of the problems in assessing next year's supply situation is that OPEC countries have delayed signing contracts for 1980 pending the outcome of the Caracas meeting. Some importing countries have been unable to get any firm commitments.
Anyone who had been counting on Mexico's taking up the slack in the market created by Iran, had better think twice, one analyst added. "Mexico probably has the same level of reserves as Iran," he said. "But the Mexicans saw the results of Iran's rapid economic growth, and they don't want to take the risk of having an Iranian-style revolution if they produce too much oil."