President Carter last night set an oil import ceiling of 8.2 million barrels a day for this year and said he would impose an import fee, effectively increasing oil prices to deter consumption, if imports threaten to go above that point.
"I expect our imports to be much lower than this," Carter said in his State of the Union address, adding, "I am prepared to lower imports still further if the other oil consuming countries will join us in a fair and mutual reduction."
Carter also declared, "If we have a serious shortage, I will not hesitate to impose mandatory gasoline rationing immediately."
Oil expert predict imports this year, will be less than 7.5 million barrels a day, perhaps no more than 7.2 million. Carter had set an import ceiling of 8.2 million barrels a day last year, while actual net imports averaged only 7.6 million barrels a day.
With higher prices and a weaker economy cutting demand this year, and with oil stocks at high levels, imports could be lower than in 1979.
Administration officials briefing reporters said they do not expect that Carter will need to impose a fee to keep imports in line this year.
The fee approach, which would cut oil use by raising prices, was chosen by the administration as a "stand-by mechanism" instead of a quota under which the right to import oil would be auctioned to the highest bidder or directly allocated on some basis, such as a user's history of imports. The other ideas were dropped after lengthy analysis showed it would be preferable to work through the market and reduce demand, officials indicated.
Carter last year indicated he would use a quota to limit imports of necessary. Congress responded with bills still pending to reduce his power to impose quotas.
Carter already has the authority to impose import fees, aides said.
No decision have been made about how large a fee might be needed, since that would depend on many factors, including the extent to which the import ceiling might be exceeded. The ceiling is for the annual aveage of daily imports and is not binding for any particular shorter period, such as a day or month.
Officials said an effort will be made at a March meeting of the International Energy Agency, the members of which include all major industrial nations except France, to reach an agreement on the further "fair and mutual" cuts in oil imports to which Carter referred.
The nation is close, "at long last," Carter said to "a clear comprehensive energy program for our country.' With passage by Congress of legislation imposing a new tax on crude oil, creating an energy security corporation to oversee development of synthetic fuels from coal and other sources, and setting up an energy mobilization board to speed approval of permits for new energy projects, that policy will be virtually complete, administration aids said.
All three bills have passed both the House and Senate and differences are being resolved in conference committees. A remaining part of the overall engery strategy, a bill to help electric utilities switch from oil to coal, will be introduced soon.
Once Congress acts, the president said, "Our nation will then have a major conservation efforrt, important initiatives to develop solar power realistic pricing based on the true value of oil, strong incentives for the production of coal and other fossil fuels in the United States, and our nation's most massive peacetime investment in the development of synthetic fuels."
Carter went on to say, "The American people are making progress in energy conservation" cutting "overall petroleum consumption by 8 percent and gasoline consumption by 5 percent from what it was the previous year."
According to the Department of Energys Weekly Petroleum Status Report, however, the correct figure for the reduction in overall petroleum consumption was 2.4 percent, not 8 percent.The president's figure for the drop in gasoline use last year was correct.
The president reiterated his intention to set gasoline conservation goals for each of the 50 states for this year after consultation with the governors of each state and warned, as he did in November, "I will make it mandatory if these goals are not met."
The national consumption goal was set then at 7 million barrels of gasoline a day.Each barrel of gasoline and crude oil has 42 gallons. Gasoline use last year averaged just slightly more than 7 million barrels a day. With much higher price, use should be considerably lower this year, oil exerts say.
Recently gasoline consumption has been running more than 10 percent below year earlier levels, according to DOE figures.