Don't pinch pennies on strategic oil

The Reagan administration budget trimmers, so press reports out of Washington have it, are contemplating deep slashes in upcoming budgets for the Department of Energy. One target of cuts is believed to be the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the nation's hedge against any future interruption of overseas oil supplies.

If the reports are true - and administration spokesmen will neither confirm nor deny them at this time - then the US government is making a serious mistake that should be swiftly and thoroughly reviewed by Congress. Each barrel of oil poured into the giant salt dome caverns along the Texas-Louisiana coast represents an additional notch of national security for the United States. It is a tribute to the Reagan administration, in fact, that the White House quickly sought to boost the oil stockpiling program shortly after taking office earlier this year. To retreat from that commitment at this time for budgetary reasons would be bad politics and false economics.

Part of the problem in gauging the progress of the oil reserve is that different stockpiling rates are contemplated throughout the period of the 1980s until the total stockpiling goal of 750 million barrels is met by 1989. At present, some 222 million barrels are in the ground, equal to about 40 days of crude oil imports. Phase I of the three-phase reserve program, a phase which ends in January 1982, is geared to a total storage of 248 million barrels by early next year. That goal is expected to be met.

However, during the Phase II period of the reserves, construction work will be undertaken to expand storage capacity. Therefore, technical reasons call for slowing the daily fill rate during the next several years.

That is where the budgetary matter comes into consideration. The budget for the reserve for fiscal year 1981 was $3.2 billion. For fiscal year 1982 the amount is $3.6 billion. Would major cutbacks in the fiscal year 1983 and 1984 budgets imperil the yearly targets - as well as the overall target - for the reserve? By one account, the 1983 budget would be slashed back to $2.3 billion. If that is in fact planned, why the sharp cutback from the $3.6 billion for 1982 ? Would such a large-scale cut be technically logical, given the slower fill rate? Or would such a cut be made merely to satisfy budget-cutting whims, unrelated to actual fill rate schedules? These are the types of questions that Congress must pursue if the administration cuts the reserve program.

As any bookkeeper or accountant knows, there are endless ways to shift a set of numbers around on a ledger to prove that long-range budgetary targets are being met, or will be ''eventually'' met. The important point is that there must be no bookkeeping legerdemain involving the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. It is imperative that the US - and in this case that means the Reagan administration - take all appropriate steps to ensure that the reserve be filled as quickly as possible. Whatever the dollar cost.

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