The death of a German civil servant in Paris the other day is the occasion for a historical footnote to the present drop in oil prices and the troubles of OPEC. The civil servant, Ulf Lantzke, ran an organization called the International Energy Agency for a decade, from the time it was established until his retirement a couple of years ago.
The first reaction to the 1973 oil crisis, in the countries that import oil, was pure panic. People began to seize various conspiracy theories to explain it, and there was talk of a military invasion of the Persian Gulf. In that atmosphere the industrial countries set up the IEA under Mr. Lantzke, and he rapidly began to draw together data on the worldwide balances of energy supply and demand. It was the first time that reliable and comprehensive figures on the subject had ever been published. With their appearance, the conspiracy theories began to fade and a different and more useful kind of anaylsis replaced them.
From the data the IEA offered its member governments, they saw that reducing oil imports was the only sure way to protect their own economies. The IEA warned them to store oil as a precaution against future disruptions. The IEA advised the United States in particular to end its price controls on oil and let the domestic price rise. That, it argued, would discourage oil use and shift industry toward coal -- and that has in fact happened. Several industrial countries at first tried to carve out preferential deals with OPEC at the expense of their allies and trading partners. The IEA persuaded them instead to work together.
It would be easy to say, in retrospect, that the great changes in energy use since 1973 were merely the obvious adjustments of buyers to a rising price. But at the time all of those adjustments were bitterly unpopular, and seemed forbiddingly expensive. They were made, slowly, and the small incremental successes over the past dozen years in cutting oil consumption have created the giant glut that is now forcing down prices with dramatic speed. Mr. Lantzke's career at the IEA is evidence of the value of a cool analytical mind in a time of great anxiety. While international organizations such as the IEA are frequently obscure, they are not always ineffectual.