Poland and East Europe's energy problem

The consequences of the persistent strife in Poland may become endemic throughout much of Eastern Europe should the Soviet bloc energy system falter in the crucial years ahead. Present trends are not hopeful. While the crisis in Poland was not caused by an energy shortage, the potential for energy shortfalls to exacerbate economic crises cannot be underestimated.

Hard coal production this past year fell about 20 percent from 1980 levels; the decline in Poland's most important hard-currency earner leaves less for export and thereby worsens an already bleak economic picture. International developments -- most notably the recession in the West's steel industries, where most exported Polish coal flows, and the potential hostility which could well surface from the European Coal and Steel Community -- will additionally contribute to Poland's worsening foreign debt position. If the military crackdown fails to increase coal production, Poland will have to rely on increasing Soviet economic and energy aid.

Herein lies much of the connection between the Polish crisis and East Europe's future. Economic growth in all the current five-year plans is not expected to equal the 1976-80 performance; now, with Soviet shipments of oil partially diverted from the rest of the bloc to Poland, the bloc economies are expected to register still lower growth. The decline in Poland's intra-bloc Polish coal deliveries add to its allies' discomfiture. Bloc progress in conservation and nuclear power generation cannot yield immediate benefits; conservation in particular is limited by the lack of flexibility (in terms of fuel substitution) necessary to produce more output for less energy investment.

Economic and political stability in Eastern Europe will therefore increasingly turn on the Soviet Union's ability to maintain sufficient energy shipments to her Warsaw Pact allies. Here there is much doubt. Even if Soviet oil production meets the newly revised target of 12.6 million barrels per day by 1985 -- which appears unlikely -- growing Soviet consumption patterns coupled with Moscow's desire to retain oil exports for hard-currency sales will surely squeeze East Europe's small but increasing needs.

Similarly, while Soviet natural gas production is scheduled to grow 7 to 8 percent each year through 1985, domestic Soviet programs substituting gas for oil and the commitment to export about 10 percent of planned 1985 output to Western Europe will further constrain gas exports to Eastern Europe. Problems of gas transmission, conversion of boilers from oil to gas, and pipeline construction must first be overcome. In addition, it is not at all clear at this juncture that gas output will grow at the planned rate.

Coal production suffers from falling output, poor quality, and rising costs. Electricity targets from nuclear power are extraordinarily ambitious; they face equipment shortages and the problems inherent in long-distance ultrahigh voltage transmission -- a field in which the Soviets have little experience.

The 1980s Soviet bloc energy outlook, in sum, is bleak. Energy shipments from the USSR to its allies will probably be cut by 10 percent for an indeterminate period, an indication of Soviet unwillingness to dispense with Western-bound oil exports. The East European leadership, who cannot afford OPEC oil prices, will be forced to impose harsh austerity measures. Despite the capacity of East-bloc peoples to cope with hardship, the consequence of drastically reduced economic growth and widespread consumer disaffection is likely to be great pressure for significant internal reform - not imposed from ''above,'' but demanded from ''below.''

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