WHILE OPEC is trying to make up its collective mind about oil prices, it's not a bad moment to take stock of the United States' record on oil consumption. The Department of Energy has just published the figures for 1982, showing that oil imports were just half the level of the peak year, 1977. While that's splendid, before you burst into applause you might note that part of the reduction is the result of the recession.
But not all of it. The most heartening trend to emerge from the past decade's figures is the steady drop in the amount of energy required to produce each dollar's worth of GNP. It's down about 20 percent since the first oil crisis in 1973, and falling at a steady rate. In 1973, a lot of people claimed that the ratio between energy consumption and economic output was fixed and any attempt at conservation would necessarily make the country poorer. That turns out to be wrong. Last year's GNP was higher than that of the previous recession year, 1980, but total energy consumption was sharply lower.
Most of that conservation has been achieved in industrial production. Gasoline consumption dropped after the last great price increase in 1979, but for the past three years it has been just about flat. In 1973, the average American car ran 13.1 miles on a gallon of gasoline. In 1981, the last year reported, the average was up to 15.5 miles per gallon, and each car was driving fewer miles. But there were more cars on the road.
Since that first oil crisis, the national economy has reduced its dependence on oil--but not dramatically. In 1973, oil was 47 percent of the country's total energy supply. By last year, it was 43 percent. Oil is still by far the most important of the fuels, with natural gas running second. Coal consumption is up, and nuclear power generation increased in the early 1970s--although not since the Three Mile Island accident four years ago.
While progress has not always been as fast as most Americans would have liked, they have done a lot over these 10 years to protect themselves from further oil disruptions and price shocks. With similar action in Europe and Japan, it has created enough slack in oil markets to force the price reduction that a divided OPEC is now debating. That's why it remains desperately important as an economic recovery gets under way to see that oil consumption stays down and oil markets stay slack.