The worldwide boycott of oil from Iraq and Kuwait has cut off virtually the entire flow from two of the world's leading producers, about 9 percent of noncommunist world production.
But crude oil prices stabilized last week after a brief, sharp runup, and consumers have responded calmly. Despite oil traders' jokes about "deja vu all over again only more so," the familiar Middle East scenario of a regional conflict disrupting global oil trade is not following the expected script.
The reason, oil experts say, is that the latest drama is unfolding in a different environment from those of 1974 and 1979. The structure of the international oil market, the U.S. regulatory framework and this country's oil economy have changed so much in the past decade that the previous crises provide little guidance on the outcome of the current one, the experts say.
"The biggest mistake in planning for emergencies is blindly assuming that past problems will recur," oil analyst Michael Lynch wrote in 1987. He and many other industry specialists have developed a long list of reasons why the events of the next few months will not follow the pattern of past disruptions. They said price increases, perhaps stiff ones, are likely if oil from Iraq and Kuwait is kept out of the market for an extended time, but interruptions of supply are not.
"There won't be any more gas lines," said Philip K. Verleger Jr., an oil expert at the Institute of International Economics. Some analysts, however, say scattered gasoline shortages are likely because Kuwait's big refineries are also shut down and U.S. refineries have little spare capacity. But a lack of crude oil will not be the cause of those shortages, as it was for the more widespread shortages of the 1970s.
At the time of the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74, most oil was sold at fixed prices under long-term contracts. When producing nations refused to fulfill those contracts, consumers had few other sources. Now, more countries produce oil and they sell it in open markets rather than through restrictive contracts. Refiners have far greater flexibility in acquiring it.
The availability of enforceable contracts for future delivery of oil on the New York Mercantile Exchange -- a mechanism that did not exist before 1983 -- reduces the incentive for refiners to hoard current stocks. Refiners who in the past might have held oil off the market because they did not know if they could replace it now feel free to sell it because they know they can replace it by purchasing futures contracts guaranteed by the giant trading firms that hold seats on the New York exchange.
In industry parlance, refiners have no need to hold on to "wet barrels" because they are assured of resupply. The resupply will cost more, but that is the tradeoff for consumers: Pay more for gasoline, but have it available.
When the Iranian revolution touched off the crisis of 1979, the U.S. oil and gasoline market was tightly regulated by federal law. Prices were controlled, and bureaucrats in the Energy Department allocated oil supplies according to a complicated priority system that produced bruising political battles. Gasoline lines formed while competing interest groups haggled over who was entitled to fuel. Today, there are no federal controls on prices or distribution.
Oil companies can sell the fuel to whomever has the money to pay for it, again presenting consumers with a cost-for-supply tradeoff.
Another important difference in today's market is that producing countries have many incentives to limit price increases, rather than encouraging them.
Oil officials in the biggest producer countries have said many times that they learned a hard lesson in the 1970s: Once prices rise beyond a certain point, consumers will stop buying. The producing countries may not know where that point is, but they do not want to reach it.
In addition, two of the biggest producing countries -- Saudi Arabia and Venezuela -- now own refineries and chains of gasoline stations in the United States. This gives them a further reason to make oil available -- and at a price that does not discourage consumption of oil products in the long run.
But while domestic refiners have more room to maneuver in acquring enough oil to meet this country's demand for petroleum products, they also face one bigger challenge than they did in the previous crises: increased U.S. reliance on foreign oil.
The United States imported about one-third of its oil in the early 1970s. Now the country imports more than half its oil -- 9 million barrels a day in June, according to the American Petroleum Institute -- and the importers must compete in the world market against the growing demands of consumers in other parts of the world, especially fast-growing East Asia.
Even the psychological environment has changed, according to some experts, who noted that American motorists did not rush to top up their gas tanks when the crisis erupted.
"We're not traumatized now as we were in 1973, when the embargo challenged our manhood, so to speak," said Elihu Bergman, executive director of Americans for Energy Independence, a Washington study group. "We've gotten over that."
He and other analysts said the 590-million barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve, created to provide insurance against disruption of supply, provides reassurance to the market even if it is not used. The Bush administration came under pressure from some members of Congress last week to put some oil from the reserve on the market as a lever against rising gasoline prices. But the administration refused. Prices began to decline anyway when President Bush sent troops to Saudi Arabia, leaving the reserve as an insurance policy with no claims against it.
Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that they do not have and do not want the authority to regulate oil prices or control allocations.
Many analysts who lived through the traumas of the 1970s agree that the absence of regulation has been the key to efficient functioning of the oil market in the past 10 days. Consumers paid up to 20 percent more for their gasoline, but they got it without having to wait in long lines.
"It's beneficial for markets to have high prices in times of crisis. It brings supply out of the woodwork," said William C. Wood, an economics professor at James Madison University.
"The existence of an organized futures market," which allows refiners to assure themselves months in advance of oil deliveries at a known price, "means that the problem is paying the price, not getting the supply," he said.
The futures market can operate only so long as world demand and world supply are in balance, which they may not be after current bulging inventories in this country and Europe have been used up. But Wood argued that the nature of the market ensures a balance of supply and demand, albeit at a high price.
"Say you had a total world shortfall that pushed prices to $100 a barrel" from the current price of about $26, he said. "I think that at $100, supply and demand would be equal because at that price somebody would find the oil. You might even get blockade-running."
No one expects prices to go anywhere near $100. According to the Energy Department, Kuwait and Iraq were shipping 4.45 million barrels of oil a day before the invasion. All of that now is off the market. But production increases in other countries, along with conservation measures taken as prices rise, should limit the actual shortfall to 1.45 million, the Energy Department said.
By comparison, according to Lynch, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 "reduced oil supplies by 4 million barrels a day, but prices increased only 25 percent and returned to pre-crisis levels after nine months."
Eric Uslaner, a University of Maryland professor who specializes in energy price regulation, said the markets will continue to supply enough oil, making up for the difficulty of obtaining it by charging higher prices, unless outcry over the higher prices leads to re-regulation.
"When it costs $2 a gallon to get to work, and it costs truckers more than that so food prices go up, and petrochemical prices go up, you're going to get an inflationary spiral that will see people coming to Washington to get their special interests taken care of," he said. "You'll see the Jimmy Carterization of George Bush."
"Experience with oil crises teaches us that the greatest danger to consumers and the economy comes from misguided actions of government policy-makers, not from the natural adjustments that occur in the market," according to Douglas R. Bohi, energy director at Resources for the Future, an independent research organization.
For some analysts, the fear is not that prices will rise, but that they will not rise enough to force the country into serious conservation or stimulate renewed interest in other forms of energy.
U.S. oil consumption declined steadily from 1979 to 1985, but has been rising since because oil was cheap, according to a recent study by the General Accounting Office.
"A 10- or 15-cent increase in gasoline prices isn't going to do anything" to reverse that trend, Bergman said.