The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries no longer holds all the cards in the world oil market and may already have overplayed its hand, some highly respected analysts believe.
The outlook for oil consumption has changed so drasitcally that some analysts believe oil prices, instead of fueling new inflationary spirals, will rise little faster than inflation generally during the remainder of this decade. The oil exporters, who seized an opportunity to quintuple oil prices in 1974 and double them in 1979, may never again be able to inflict such economic pain on the world without harming their own long-term economic prospects as well.
None of this means the world's oil or energy problems are solved. For instance, while the impact of a temporary loss of oil from a political upheaval in Saudi Arabia would not create the "unimagined disaster" it would have several years ago, as one analyst puts it, it still would create a "major crisis."
And the relative improvement in the oil picture is the result of huge price increases that are still extracting a fearsome economic cost in terms of lower productivity and living standards around the world.
But because the world alrady is paying that price, there is broad agreement that, short of a revolution in Saudi Arabia, there is some breathing room that probably will last for several years.
Some analysts, such as John H. Lichtblau, executive director of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, and Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, believe a fundamental shift has occurred in the world energy outlook. Others, including Ted Eck, chief economist of Standard Oil Co. (Indiana), and former energy secretary James R. Schlesinger, disagree.
The conclusions of optimists Lichtblau and Greenspan, if correct, carry enormous implications for United States foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. They base their views not just on the current world market situation in which excess supplies are driving down the price of oil but also on what they say are long-term structural changes that will continue to hold down the demand for oil.
These changes involve everything from consumers buying higher-mileage cars and insulating their homes to major energy-saving investments by industry to steadily increasing oil production in non-OPEC nations. And with oil proces finally decontrolled in the United States, it is far less likely that Americans will go back to their former oil-guzzling ways.
Only a short four years ago the outlook was radically different. In a speech in February, 1977, Schlesinger declared, "By the 1980s, given the growth of demand for oil, . . . we will simply be pressing against present [oil production] capacity even if Saudi Arabia expands production to 18 million or 20 million barrels per day.
At the moment, the Saudis are producing about 10 million barrels daily and the world has so much oil available that other producers are pleading for production cutbacks to prop up prices. OPEC as a whole this year likely will produce an average of less than 24 million barrels a day, down from 31.2 million in 1977, and still there is enough.
Schlesinger recalled this at a London energy conference this month and explained why things turned out differently. "In 1977 the Carter administration projected, based on somewhat optimistic assumptions, that there would be an oil crunch around 1983 when demand overran supply -- and oil prices would start upward with the effects on price levels and employment. The fall of the shah advanced that date of 1979. Thus we have already experienced the prophesied oil crunch."
But OPEC, and particularly those members who have pushed their prices well above what the Saudis are charging, has overdone it. In essence, they are in the process of pricing themselves out of the energy market.
The grab for vastly more revenue immediately speeded up the slow worldwide move toward energy efficiency and substitution of other energy sources for oil. The pace of these changes accelerated so rapidly that Saudi Arabia now fears the long-term value of its massive oil reserves could be threatened if it cannot reunify OPEC prices at a lower level. That is perhaps the most important reason the Saudis are keeping their output high, according to industry experts and key Reagan administration officials.
Lichtblau told the London conference that "significant further real oil price increases would obviously hurt the importing countries which would have to pay them, [but] in the longer run -- say 7 to 10 years -- they could hurt oil-exporting countries even more . . . all players would lose but, over time, the producers more than the consumers."
Lichtblau argued that one reason OPEC was able to impose its huge price increases in both 1973 and 1979 was that "directionally the price increases were in line with emerging market developments." In other words, tight market conditions were pushing up prices anyway.
In 1977, when Schlesinger expressed such concern over the oil outlook in the 1980s, demand had been growing by about 3 percent a year. "Had this growth rate continued to 1985," Lichtblau said, "it would have resulted in a non-communist world oil demand of nearly 63 million barrels a day, 11 million to 13 million more than is currently forecast for 1985."
This trend would have produced rising prices even without the events in Iran, which took at least 2.5 million barrels a day out of world oil production capacity more or less indefinitely. Market forces probably would not have resulted in such a large or abrupt jump in prices, but prices would have gone up.
But why can't it all happen again? The present differs from the past, in Lichtblau's view, "in one essential aspect: market forces do not support any substantial further real price increases. In fact, there is now strong evidence that current prices are too high in relation to the underlying market structure."
On the production side, crude oil supplies in non-OPEC nations are increasing. Lichtblau said such supplies increased, on average, by nearly 1 million barrels a day in each of the last three years, and are expected to continue to rise by about half that volume over the next 5 to 6 years.
On the consumption side, oil demand in the industrial countries is on the way down after hitting a peak of nearly 41 million barrels a day in 1978. In 1981 the industrial world probably will need more than 37 million barrels a day, and the United States -- which in 1978 used 18.8 million barrels a day, 8 million of them imported -- is expected to be well under last year's 17 million barrels daily. Net imports to the United States so far this year have been only 5.4 million barrels a day.
Some of this decline is undoubtedly due to slower economic growth throughout most of the industrial nations and "the after-effect of the 1979 price shock," Lichtblau said.
But, he added, "the bulk of the decline appears to be structural and irreversible: Japan, which had a healthy economic growth rate last year, registered nevertheless a 10 percent decline in oil demand; Germany, which had a modest economic growth rate, registered a 12 percent decline in oil demand; the United States, whose economy was stagnant last year, had an 8 percent decline in oil demand."
Former CEA chairman Greenspan, who last week was in Washington meeting with President Reagan and his economic team, said in a commencement address recently at Pace College that until the last year or so "we believed ourselves to be on a continuous treadmill whereby any resumption of growth would be choked off by an associated explosion of oil prices. This outlook has changed dramatically with the extraordinary and unexpected slowing in oil consumption throughout the western world, which surprised even the optimists. The net result is a significant decline in the projected demand for OPEC-supplied oil over the next decade."
Instead of the need to squeeze every possible barrel of oil out of known reserves during the 1980s, as Schlesinger, Greenspan and Lichtblau all foresaw at one time, "later in the decade the OPEC nations may be having difficulty deciding how to allocate cuts in production that may be required to meet a lower level of demand," Greenspan said. If the oil exporters continue to spend as much money on economic development schemes as they have been, their financial commitments may make it hard to allocate production cutbacks, just as it is now.
But Greenspan also cautioned that it would "be a mistake to assume that the oil crisis is over." It is still quite possible that Saudi Arabia or some other major Middle East oil producer could be confronted with political or military upheaval and sharply curtail output, causing a temporary shortage. "However, what would have been unimagined disaster five years ago is now contemplated only as a major crisis, a crisis we have the resources to survive," he declared.
Eck, the economist at Standard Oil Co. (Indiana), like Schlesinger, is far less sanguine about the future, though he acknowledges there has been some improvement. "I am still impressed with the ability of oil prices to be sustained or even go up in the face of recession and a big drop in demand," he said in an interview.
Since oil prices are set in terms of the U.S. dollar, which has been rising in value relative to virtually every other nation's currency, the cost of oil has been going up in other countries even when it has been stable or falling here. In the last 12 months, Eck calculated, oil prices have gone up an average of 11 percent faster than prices generally, when the dollar's value and each country's inflation is taken into account.
"Oil is still the cheapest protable form of easily transportable energy, and there is no synthetic fuels challenge at the present price level," Eck said. "The competition from alternative energy sources is not there, so we will have to rely on normal supply and demand economics. And that means relying on OPEC, or in reality on Saudi Arabia" which raises the danger of a supply interruption.
Eck agrees that the huge price increase of 1979, and the changes in energy use that have followed, do make the world less vulnerable than before. Perhaps oil prices will go up 10 percent instead of 100 percent in an oil "shock," he said. That, of course, would be a far cry from the last time around.
On the other hand, Schlesinger simply does not want to talk in such terms, which treat oil markets in isolation. "While the market may, in a rough-and-ready manner, deal with the problem of energy supply taken in isolation, the underlying energy problem has been transformed into a congeries of economic maladjustments that will take us decades to rectify," he said.
His list of "maladjustments" includes massive, abrupt obsolesence of machines, plants, even housing, all of which will require huge investments to replace. Meanwhile, still more money will have to be poured into other projects, whether oil wells, nuclear reactors or other items, to maintain the flow of energy. Those many billions of dollars otherwise could be going for more productive investments.
Moreover, in Schlesinger's opinion, the markets did not do so hot last year. "We got though the last year with the Iraq-Iran war by the skin of our teeth" as far as prices are concerned, he said.
Some Reagan administration officials are afraid the president and some of his top advisers may not appreciate that fact. Both the State and Defense departments have begun to press for a quick decision on what should replace the expiring provisions of some energy legislation that allows U.S. oil companies to participate in the oil-sharing arrangements of the International Energy Agency, and that gives authority to the federal government to allocate available oil supplies.
A number of Reagan advisers think tha marketplace can deal with most shortages. Other officials, looking back at how jittery the spot market got in reaction to the Iran-Iraq war, despite governments' arm-twisting of oil companies to keep them out of the market, think keeping the IEA machinery going is a prerequisite to having other nations support U.S. policies in the Middle East.