The 20 industrialized member nations of the International Energy Agency agreed today to set up a system for reducing their national oil import quotas rapidly if supply shrinks rather than compete with each other for the available oil.
The agreement, however, fell far short of U.S. proposals that the IEA countries collectively reduce their 1980 quotas by 1 million barrels a day and agree on applying sanctions against members who do not respect their commitment.
Today's actions came at a special one-day meeting of IEA energy ministers scheduled to precede that of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Caracas, Venezuela, next week. OPEC is to set new oil prices.
U.S. Energy Secretary Charles Duncan told a press conference he was highly pleased with the outcome of the IEA meeting since "we evidenced more determination to constrain our collective demand for oil than ever before."
Several American sources said the U.S. delegation had asked for more than they thought they could achieve.
Officials expressed divided opinions about whether the ministers had agreed on enough "to send OPEC a message" to exercise price restraint.
Conference participants said there were no important disagreements today since everything basically was agreed on yesterday at informal sessions, where it was made clear to the Americans that the others were not prepared to make further cuts in oil imports now.
The major vocal resistance came from the West Germans. The Japanese, who are being accused by the Americans of buying at premium prices all the extra oil they can -- including the Iranian production that the Americans have refused to take -- sat through today's session in virtual silence, participants said. U.S. officials had said several weeks ago that Japan had agreed not to buy up the oil freed by the American decision to stop purchasing from Iran.
IEA ministers agreed to meet again in March to review the oil situation and to impose new import ceilings if the supply situation warrants it.
The U.S. delegation expressed acceptance of the idea advanced by others that it is meaningless to announce cutbacks in the face of the total uncertainty about how much oil the OPEC countries will produce in 1980.
For the first time, the 20 countries agreed to list their import ceilings for 1980 on a nation-by-nation basis. But there was no lowering of the previously agreed overall objective of 24.5 million barrels a day next year. The nine member nations of the European Economic Community had set an overall community target but had refused before today's meeting to provide formal country-by-country commitments.
Asked whether the ceilings would be further reduced on a proportional basis if supply should shrink, Duncan replied that such special factors as a country's economic growth would have to be taken into consideration. This was an obvious bow to the argument of West German Economics Minister Otto von Lambsdorff that it makes no sense to brake expansion in West Germany, one of the more healthy Western economies.
The ministers agreed that the March meeting would only be the first of regular quarterly sessions to be held at a technical level to monitor the relationship between supply and demand.
They also agreed that the current system of registering all crude oil transactions should be extended to refined petroleum products as well.
In a passage of the final communique that points to higher domestic oil prices in the United States, the ministers spoke of "the importance of keeping domestic oil prices at world market levels or raising them to these levels as soon as possible." But there was nothing binding about that.