LONDON — BRITAIN'S huge off-shore oil reserves ought to provide the nation with an ensured energy cushion as petroleum supplies from the Gulf come under threat. But a series of wildcat strikes is plunging this vital resource into troubled waters. In a tangled industrial dispute in which safety standards, union recognition, and human frustration are intertwined, thousands of maintenance workers have spent the greater part of August attempting to disrupt the flow of crude from North Sea platforms into Britain's distribution system.
The result is a drop in oil supplies at the very moment that the confrontation in the Gulf appears to be escalating.
According to one industry estimate, British output of crude could drop by a third as a result of the 24-hour strikes - five so far. With the price of North Sea oil being boosted by events in the Gulf, that would represent a major loss of revenue.
The North Sea oil industry is the creature of rapid growth over two decades and of a bold, often dangerous, determination to exploit the vast quantities of ``black gold'' lying beneath storm-swept waters 100 miles or more off the Scottish coast.
In their eagerness to extract the oil at maximum profit, drilling and supply companies have attempted to avoid the formation of trade unions capable of concerted industrial action.
At the same time, oil workers claim, the companies have cut too many safety corners.
They cite as proof the Piper Alpha disaster in July 1988, when a blowout beneath an oil platform caused the deaths of 167 men.
Since Piper Alpha, and a fire on the Ocean Odyssey platform three months later, offshore oil maintenance workers have demanded union recognition and solid assurances that safety standards would be improved.
A spokesman for the Offshore Contractors' Council, representing the employers, says standards are improving, and points to a 1.4 billion ($2.7 billion) program to install safety valves to prevent Piper Alpha-type blowouts. Ronnie McDonald, chairman of the unofficial committee that has been calling the wildcat strikes, says that the oil companies have been too slow to adopt safety measures and that an official inquiry into Piper Alpha, due to be published soon, will support the strikers' case.
Pay rates are not an issue. The oil maintenance workers earn large salaries and, because of the severe conditions aboard platforms and rigs, they normally spend considerable amounts of time on shore between their two-week, 12-hours-a-day shifts. They are ferried to and from the mainland by helicopter.
These working conditions appear to have bred a sense of insecurity and frustration among workers whose morale was severely dented by Piper Alpha.
Mr. McDonald complains of exploitation by the big oil companies.
``Around 80 percent of our workforce is employed casually, without security. No wonder the lads are unhappy,'' he says.
The companies, which include Shell, Esso, BP, and Chevron, are unhappy too. They complain that McDonald and his followers have chosen to stage strikes just when the companies are temporarily shutting down oil fields to fit safety valves to the seabed pipelines.
Oil company spokesmen claim that during August, the numbers of men taking part in the wildcat strikes has steadily fallen. The strikers deny that there has been a serious flagging of support.
At peak periods, a company source said, North Sea oil production is around 2 million barrels a day. It had fallen to 1.5 million barrels by mid-August and could slip as low as 1.4 million.
The source went on: ``When you consider that Britain must produce around 1.7 million barrels a day to remain self-sufficient, it's obvious there is a problem. Production is on a knife edge.''
This judgment was supported by the oil analysts County NatWest WoodMac, who said last week that ``Britain could become a net importer of oil in September and October as winter approaches.''
In an attempt to persuade maintenance staff to resume normal schedules, some oil companies have said they will delay the fitting of new safety gear to rigs and platforms in order to keep oil flowing, but this has merely angered the strikers.
It also invites criticism from the Department of Energy, which is pressing the companies to fit safety valves by a legally prescribed deadline of Dec. 31. The department is said to have reminded the companies that, if they delay safety work for too long, they may persuade unions in the onshore oil industry to support the offshore wildcatters and declare their strikes official.