Cairo — Egypt is trying to prevent the depletion of its chief foreign-exchange earner , oil, by phasing in nuclear power. The volume of Egyptian oil consumption is roughly the same as that of its oil exports, which reached 17 million tons last year. That figure makes oil the No. 1 foreign-exchange earner, followed by remittances from Egyptian expatriates, Suez Canal revenues, and tourism returns.
But with oil consumption galloping ahead 15 percent annually, ''whatever we discover will be consumed,'' Ahmad Hilal, deputy prime minister and minister of petroleum, complained in a recent interview.
Citing examples of government subsidies of oil products, he said, ''I am afraid if prices remain fixed, we will not be able to save energy.'' The government has over the last 20 years subsidized oil products, the subsidies increasing with the rise in international prices, reaching six times the local market price of butagaz bottles. Egypt imports 60 percent of the butagaz it needs for household and industrial purposes. The government seeks to cut consumption through slight progressive price increases and to reduce dependence on oil for power generation.
At present 45 foreign companies, including various support enterprises, are working with the Egyptian General Petroleum Authority to produce an average 650, 000 barrels a day, mostly from onshore and offshore fields in the Gulf of Suez. Other areas said to be oil rich, which remain to be fully exploited, include the desert Sinai Peninsula, under Israeli occupation for 15 years until its recent recovery, and the vast Eastern and Western Deserts.
Sixteen discoveries were made last year, knowledgeable sources say, including two natural-gas reserves, leading to optimistic expectations of greatly increased production in the next few years - expectations not necessarily shared by observers outside government, however.
Officials hope the increase in production will feed Egypt's growing petrochemicals industry, and they say recent increases in oil-refining capability should enable Egypt in the near future to start exporting oil products instead of crude oil, and to help it become self-sufficient in certain products it now imports, including aviation fuel.
With the current attempts at freezing local consumption of oil at its present level, and as the Aswan High Dam's power production capacity rises to its optimal level, the government is seeking alternative sources of power. Aiming at an end to the not-infrequent power cuts, which cost the public sector industry $:100 million ($71 million) in losses last year, the government is planning to build eight nuclear-power stations through 1990. Four Western nations - the United States, West Germany, France, and Canada - will undertake this task, financed by returns from oil exports and soft-term loans and aid funds.