When OPEC gets together
In at last agreeing on a unified price for its oil, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has taken an important step that should result in price stability through 1982. What is of paramount importance for Americans however is to ensure that such an equilibrium - combined with the current worldwide oil glut - not become an excuse to turn away from energy conservation and back towards the waste and profligacy that characterized energy use in the past. The US must also wisely seize this moment to hasten its filling of the strategic oil reserve. The recent assassination of President Sadat once again underscored the vulnerability of the US to sudden and unexpected political developments in the Mideast. Yet the US still imports something on the order of 6 million barrels of oil each day, a significant portion of that amount from Mideast suppliers.
In part, of course, the current economic downturn, as well as high energy prices relative to those that prevailed in the early to mid 1970s, are working in favor of reduced US and world oil consumption. As energy prices have shot upward users have sought the least costly energy source, while spurring energy savings. But at the same time there is evidence that Americans have slipped somewhat on the conservation front of late. Use of gasoline in the past four months, for example, rose above the levels in the corresponding period in 1980, according to the Department of Energy. Moreover, there are areas where the US has not yet made sufficient progesss in conservation, such as getting industry to convert to coal.
For now, however, the energy outlook appears promising for the US, particularly as regards imported oil. Despite a reduction in production by the Saudis, the current glut is expected to continue for some time. In fact, given the worldwide economic downturn, there is a possibility that some oil-exporting nations, hard pressed for cash, will find it difficult to resist discounting their oil below the basic $34 per barrel accord reached at Geneva last week. Any break on the common price by a major producer would likely lead to further split-offs, and perhaps even an eventual scuttling of the agreement.
Reaching a common price proved, as noted by Kuwait's oil minister, that ''rumors about OPEC's death are exaggerated.'' But the very continuation of OPEC , with its long-range threat of potential supply disruptions, remains a vital reason for not dropping the guard on energy conservation.