Vice president Bush said he was going to have to discuss stability of oil prices with the Saudis. Secretary of Energy John S. Herrington shook his finger sternly at the Saudis and warned that they were making trouble for American oil producers. But now the White House sharply issues a clarification to the effect that the United States has no intention whatever of interfering in the oil markets. American policy seems to be, as the phrase goes, in a fluid condition.
The Saudi decision last fall to raise production is driving world prices down to a point that causes real distress in the American Southwest. The Reagan administration is, clearly, torn. Saudi pro- duction remains the single most important factor in setting the prices of the world's oil. Forget OPEC, the debating socety in Geneva. In the past decade Saudi production has been up over 10 million barrels a day and, last summer, down to little more than 2 million. Saudi Arabia is the only country with that much oil to export and that much flexibility. In a world that uses a little less than 60 million barrels a day, and that cannot respond very rapidly to changes in supply, shifts in Saudi output have drastic effects. Saudi Arabia has increased pro- duction by about 2 million barrels a day since last summer, and the world price has dropped by nearly two-thirds.
Why are the Saudis doing it? Partly, you can assume, to punish their OPEC partners who were cheating. Partly to dissuade their customers in the industrial world from shifting away from their dependence on oil. Partly, perhaps, to remind Americans -- especially those at the White House -- of the dimensions of their power. The Saudis were beginning to feel, according to some of the close watchers, that the United States was beginning to take them for granted and to shrug off too easily their requests to buy military equipment here.
As Mr. Bush and Mr. Harrington have demonstrated, the Saudis again have Americans' attention. How should Americans respond? This country certainly has an interest in Saudi security. But in the matter of oil, it would be unspeakably foolish for Americans to start happily sopping up cheap fuel again and sending imports soaring. Instead, sensible people will keep it in mind that the low prices are not likely to last forever. If the industrial countries begin using a lot more oil, in the pattern of the late 1970s, the temptation in the Middle East to jerk prices upward will be irresistible.
You might also keep it in mind that there is an extremely dangerous war in progress in the Saudis' neighborhood, and the side that seems to be gaining ground -- Iran -- stands for revolution and much more expensive oil. That war is making the Saudis deeply apprehensive. It ought at least to make Americans careful.