Americans use less oil -- but pay price

The figures are impressive. But what do they mean? Americans this year are importing considerably less foreign oil than a year ago and burning up less in their cars and homes.

Total imports, reports the American Petroleum Institute (API), dropped 9 percent in the first quarter of this year (7,789,000, barrels per day), compared with 8,557,000 in the same period of 1979.

Gasoline consumption was down 8.4 percent over the three-month period. Use of distillate fuel oil (mostly home heating oil and diesel fuel) shrank by a whopping 15.6 percent.

In April, the API says, imports declined even more markedly, registering a 14 .7 percent drop compared with April 1979.

Even when seasonal factors are taken into account -- warmer weather this past winter than the year before -- that still is a lot less oil being bought and burned.

Why, then, any question?

Because, experts agree, US vulnerability -- what Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker calls being "hostage to our energy dependence" -- comes in two parts.

One is financial. Here the United States is slipping backward, despite oil conservation, because the cost of petroleum continues to climb.

This year, Deputy Energy Secretary John C. Sawhill says, Americans will spend year for a greater amount of oil.

"Our 1980 oil import bill," Dr. Sawhill says, "is equal to the net assets of General Motors, Ford, IBM, and General Electric combined."

The second aspect of US dependence on foreign oil involves security. To the degree that Americans originate more energy supplies at home, they lessen the ability of foreign powers to whipsaw US policy.

Cutting oil imports by nearly 10 percent is a step forward. But, analysts note, foreign oil increasingly comes to the United States from potentially insecure sources of supply, notably Arab wells.

Nearly half of all crude imported by the US now comes from Arab countries, compared with 15 percent in 1973. A major reason for this shift is the fact that Canada, once the No. 1 supplier of foreign oil to the United States, now keeps its oil at home.

Also, Iran -- a large supplier in the past -- no longer ships oil to the United States.

Higher price, Dr. Sawhill said in a telephone interview, is the principal reason why oil use is down, sending "a clear signal" to Americans that the era of cheap energy is gone.

An even clearer signal would be sent, he said, if President Carter's oil import fee -- which would boost retail gasoline prices by 10 cents a gallon -- is allowed to remain in place.

Currently the fee, which Mr. Carter describes as a "gasoline conservation fee ," is under challenge in the federal courts and in Congress, with large numbers of lawmakers in both chambers vowing to kill the fee.

Congressional opponents of the fee, Dr. Sawhill said, apparently "would rather send the money to the Saudis than keep it at home."

Putting all this in perspective, Dr. Sawhill sees "good progress in the last year, but still a significant need for a major new conservation effort."

This, in his view, should include a "hard look at post-1985 automobile efficiency standards" and the development of alternative transport modes, such as electric cars.

Under current law, US automakers must achieve fleet averages of 27.5 miles per gallon by 1985. This year's requirement is 20 m.p.g.

For residences, Dr. Sawhill advocates, among other things, a study of "district heating," or the production of both electricity and hot water in utility boilers. The hot water then would be piped to residential units. Such "cogeneration" is widely practiced in Europe.

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