Will the 'conservation ethic' survive lower gas prices?
The much talked about world oil glut has US motorists smiling all the way to the gas pump.Skip to next paragraph
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But some experts are concerned that the push to conserve and the shift to alternative energy sources - both of which helped make the glut possible - may now sputter and stall.
''We've hit a low in conservation because oil prices have stabilized,'' says Dr. Martin J. Bernard, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the Argonne -National Laboratory near Chicago. But, he adds, ''it's very important not to swing back'' to old consumption patterns.
For now, however, concern about the pace at which the United States is weaning itself away from heavy dependence on imported oil is being overshadowed, to some extent, by cautiously optimistic reports about future world oil prices.
Conoco Inc., in a recently published report entitled ''World Energy Outlook Through 2000,'' says that during ''the next several years'' world oil prices may rise no faster than the rate of inflation. During the remainder of the 20th century, the report says, price increases are likely to average 2 to 3 percent a year above the rate of inflation.
One New York investment firm's petroleum industry analyst forecasts that world oil price increases will not keep pace with inflation, at least through 1985. He expects, therefore, a ''modest'' drop in the ''real''(inflation adjusted) price of oil through 1985.
William M. Brown, director of energy studies at the Hudson Institute, has predicted that members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will undercut each other's prices as they scramble to boost their share of a world market awash in crude oil. He says this could result in the price of OPEC oil dropping from the current $34 a barrel to $24 a barrel (in 1981 dollars) by 1985 - a 30 percent reduction in real terms.
To differing degrees, these forecasts are based on slowing growth in demand for energy, more efficient use of energy, a shift toward other energy sources, and a reduced dependence on OPEC oil.
But these price forecasts carry a commom warning: If there is a major supply disruption, throw them in the wastebasket.
And there's the rub. Reports from the Persian Gulf, for instance, are talking about the increased tempo in the war between Iran and Iraq, the fact that several Mideast countries are poised to get involved, and the threat this may pose to Persian Gulf oil supplies.
''There's a high probability of a significant crisis in the Middle East within this decade, or by the turn of the century - especially without (the late Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat,'' says Dr. Bernard. ''Given that, if you have a 'lean' system, you can cope better with shortages. The best contingency measure is long-term conservation.''
That Americans can conserve is evident.
''The US is consuming between 15 and 16 million barrels of oil a day - about one-third of the free world's consumption. That's down from around 18 million barrels a day in 1977,'' says Michael Canes, director of policy analysis for the American Petroleum Institute (API).