Fragile stability has returned to the world's oil markets. This may seem of small comfort to American motorists, shelling out more money than ever for gasoline. But some members of the OPEC cartel -- notably Venezuela and Iran -- cannot sell all the oil they want to because world demand is shrinking.
In some countries, less oil is being pumped. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will produce an estimated 29 million barrels daily this spring, down from 31 million in the last three months of 1979.
Some time ago, cutbacks of this size would have sent shivers through the industrial world. Now, says petroleum expert John Lichtblau, "no shortage is in sight for the first half of 1980."
Declining world consumption of oil, coupled with higher output in Mexico and the North Sea, are taking the play away from OPEC, at least for the time being.
"Even if the Saudis were to cut back to 8.5 million barrels a day on April 1 [from 9.5 million now]," Mr. Lichtblau says, "this would not create a shortage."
"The world's margin of safety," he adds, "would be eroded substantially, but there would not be a shortage."
Though none can be sure, US analysts generally expect the Saudis will continue to pump 9.5 million barrels a day through the second quarter of 1980, with policy beyond that time unclear.
A basic Saudi purpose -- restoration of at least partial pricing discipline within OPEC -- is accomplished by a high rate of production from Saudi Arabia's abundant wells.
"Spot market prices are down substantially," says Mr. Lichtblau, executive director of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation Inc., "not much above official prices."
More important, he adds, the volume of oil sold on the spot market is much smaller than it was some months ago, when as much as 15 to 20 percent of all crude moving on the international market was selling above contract prices.
The weighted average price of OPEC oil, including contract and spot sales, now hovers around $30 a barrel -- $14 a barrel higher than a year ago.
Stability in the market is being bought at a price, which can be measured in different ways:
Americans, for a combination of reasons, will pay at least $1.50 a gallon for gasoline by the end of the year, perhaps slightly higher.
President Carter's new import fee on foreign oil, to be directed wholly toward gasoline, will raise pump prices at least 10 cents a gallon. The import fee will not affect the price of home heating oil.
Mr. Carter's progressive decontrol of domestic oil prices, however, adds another 10 or 12 cents a gallon across the board -- gasoline, home heating oil, and other products.
These price hikes, together with other costs and the final working through of earlier OPEC increases, contribute to the expected $1.50 price tag on a gallon of gasoline.
A broader cost is the shrinking of economic activity throughout the industrial world, as Japan, Europe, and the United States accommodate to sharply higher oil prices.
Whereas the US last year was the only major Western power to reduce its demand for oil, others may join the conservation list this year.