The world may be going through an oil crisis, but there's no sign of it in the stately K Street offices of the Energy Department's National Petroleum Council.
The council's membership includes many of the heaviest hitters in the U.S. oil business, but as an organization it has no role in shaping the nation's response to the current situation in the Persian Gulf. The council undertakes only the tasks assigned to it by the secretary of energy, and he has not called since Iraq invaded Kuwait Aug. 2.
Marshall W. Nichols, the council's executive director, said he is not surprised. He said the petroleum council conducts mostly research-type studies that take months, if not years, to complete, and is not crisis-oriented.
Established by President Harry S. Truman in 1946, the council advises the secretary of energy about all aspects of the oil, gasoline and natural gas industries, but not about how to deal with specific emergencies. Its current projects, assigned by Energy Secretary James D. Watkins June 25, are studies of "The U.S. Refinery Sector in the 1990s" and of "Constraints to Expanding Natural Gas Production, Distribution and Use."
Also in the works is a study Watkins requested about the possibility of creating a National Defense Executive Reserve, a list of energy executives who would be pressed into government service in the event of "a severe national security emergency."
Watkins said this report was "a high priority for the department," but Nichols said it has made many members uncomfortable because they fear it might lead to a government takeover of their companies if the president decided it was necessary. "The last thing you want is to have your field operations guys sitting at a desk in Washington when you need them most," he said.
Last year, the council's big project was a blockbuster: a five-volume, 1,302-page study entitled "Petroleum Storage and Transportation." It is available from the council for $150.
The National Petroleum Council was established as a peacetime successor to the Petroleum Industry War Council. It reported to the Interior Department until the creation of the Energy Department in 1977. At that time, Nichols said, "we didn't have anything to do" because the administration of President Jimmy Carter relied on its own expertise, but later then-Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger "asked for all kinds of stuff."
Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972, the council receives no federal money. The salaries of its 12-person Washington staff and the costs of its technical studies are financed by its 152 members.
These include many of the best-known and most powerful figures in the oil and gas business, such as Mobil Corp. chairman Allen E. Murray, Texaco Inc. president James W. Kinnear, Exxon Corp. chairman Lawrence E. Rawl and Enron Corp. chairman Kenneth L. Lay, as well as energy lawyers, consultants and state regulators. The current chairman is Lodwrick M. Cook, chief executive of Atlantic Richfield Co.
"We're like a consulting firm that's free," Nichols said. He said the council does no lobbying and is different from a trade association because "their purpose is to tell the government what they think it should know. Our purpose is to tell the government what it wants to know."
Because the council includes members from different segments of the industry that are often at odds, Nichols said, it is sometimes difficult to achieve consensus on policy issues.
"Our biggest fights are intramural," he said. "The secretary of energy asks the questions, but he doesn't control the outcome" of the council's studies.