Soviet energy outlook will be bright; if it gets help from West to tap reserves

The Soviet Union, though able to laugh out loud at earlier CIA predictions that it will be importing oil by 1985, does face potentially serious energy problems.

These problems could be compounded should the current downward pressure on world oil prices, the first since 1973, continue.

Western help would make a big difference in sorting out Soviet energy woes. This could be one reason the Soviets have -- so far -- limited themselves to tough, and now toughening, talk on the Polish crisis.

Central Intelligence Agency officials recently rolled back on their 1977 forecast that the USSR, the world's largest oil producer, would be forced to look abroad to meet its oil needs by the middle of this decade.

Soviet officials are saying, in effect, "We told you so." Some West European experts here had been skeptical of the CIA findings from the start. One US Embassy expert, who a few months ago generally endorsed the CIA prediction, now suggests he was just kidding.

But all this does not mean Soviet energy problems are over.

And energy, except when the CIA report comes up, is no laughing matter here. In addition to meeting domestic needs, Soviet energy output supplies East European states, brings in essential hard currency from the West, and helps fuel Kremlin efforts to woo such noncommunist states as India and Brazil.

Soviet oil output, if not yet declining as the CIA report implied it would, is leveling off.

In the past year, the Soviets have decreased oil exports to several Western clients, although apparently exempting the politically favored finns and pledging new deliveries to India.

Tapping further oil resources involves a costly and brutal battle with the swamps and permafrost of Siberia.Soviet officials undoubtedly know this and are moving to deemphasize the role of oil by expanding development of other energy sources, especially their enormous reserves of natural gas.

Soviet planners also hope to greatly expand their nuclear energy sector over the next decade. A complex in the southern city of Volgodonsk is slated to churn out large nuclear reactors to this end.

The so-called Atommash factory did manage to produce its first reactor shell in time for last February's Soviet Communist Party congress.

But recent visitors to the complex, a series of halls each the length of several football fields, say the integration of the vessel into a full, working reactor seems many months away. Western experts judge that it will be at least several years before Atommash's pace begins to pick up significantly.

A recent edition of an Atommash in-house newspaper, provided to the Monitor, suggested that such endemic Soviet economic problems as late equipment deliveries and high worker turnover were complicating production.

The newspaper indicated that equipment needed to "hydro-test' finished reactor vessels -- using water to test welds -- was not yet in place. "According to commitments, they should finish it in the second quarter of this year," a foreman was quoted as saying. "But I think they will not."

The natural gas picture is far brighter. Gas production was one of the few major areas in which the Soviet economy hit its target last year. Over the next five years, Soviet planners are looking for as much as a 50 percent hike in production.

Most foreign experts here are skeptical, not because the gas is not in the ground, but because getting it out is not easy.

This reporter would prefer to leave specific predictions -- and, if necessary , their retraction -- to the CIA. But one thing seems certain: The importance of gas production here is increasing, and the task of meeting announced targets would be much easier with cooperation from the West.

Some foreign experts go further, arguing that Moscow has no chance of meeting the targets without outside help.

The Soviets are negotiating with several West European states a project that would pump huge quantities of Siberian natural gas to Western Europe. The talks are still stalemated over pricing and financing details, apparently with each side trying to gauge which needs the deal more, an energy-hungry Western Europe or the Soviets.

The gas is jealously locked away by permafrost. Soviet drill bits are rated as much less effective against such a barrier than Western varieties. Western experts say the Soviets would have trouble producing the large-diameter piping needed for the planned 3,500 mile line.

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