Oilmen: deregulation will spur energy diversity

Today's apparent ''oil glut'' is instead ''a temporary oversupply situation'' which could give way at any time to ''major oil supply disruptions,'' according to oil industry forecasters.

In Houston this week, Exxon operations manager Harry J. Longwell told an American Petroleum Institute meeting that talk of an oil glut is ''misleading'' and ''potentially dangerous.'' He said the US must act now to ensure a smooth switch ''from a petroleum dependent to an energy diversified economy.''

Key to this switch, say oilmen, is to follow up last year's deregulation of oil prices by deregulating natural gas prices this year. Deregulation, they argue, allows the market to set prices and therefore both encourages conservation and encourages increased production.

Consumer groups, along with many congressmen gearing up for the November elections, oppose deregulating natural gas prices. They say that Americans don't need doubled or tripled gas bills on top of other worries -- and that oil companies don't need another avenue to increased profits.

The oil industry's reply is that Americans will simply stockpile problems for the future by holding natural gas prices artificially low -- or by mistakenly thinking that lower gasoline and heating oil prices would help the economy.

The way to help a battered economy, says Exxon's Mr. Longwell, is through aggressive conservation, opening up new oil fields, and developing alternative energy sources such as nuclear power and synthetic liquid fuel from coal and oil shale. This is the only way, he maintains, that the US can balance supply with demand over the next 20 years. But he stresses that heavy investment is needed now in all these areas to prevent future crises.

Coinciding with the releasing of Exxon's annual ''Energy Outlook'' figures, Conoco issued very similar figures Jan. 12 in its ''World Energy Outlook Through 2000.'' Both Exxon and Conoco predict that with sufficient public commitment and government leadership, the total annual increase in US energy demand can be held to about 1 percent -- well below the 4 percent rate of the 1960-1973 pre-Arab-oil-embargo period.

The message in both reports echoes what the industry as a whole is warning: that unless the US does hold its energy demand increase to about 1 percent each year for the next 20 years, serious shortages are inevitable.

Even with the 1 percent increase, Longwell says, America will need to increase its overall energy supplies by more than 20 percent over the next 20 years.

Self-interest partly explains oil industry warnings that any excess supply is purely temporary. Oversupply has cut sharply into oil company stock prices on Wall Street. This has sparked fresh concern that undervalued companies will be swallowed up by takeovers, as has happened to Marathon Oil and Conoco Inc.

But the fundamental problem, the oil industry insists, is that the US government and public may forget about the urgent need to develop a longterm national energy policy. A successful policy able to cope with future problems, industry leaders explain, must include:

* Increased oil-company access to vast tracts of unexplored federal land and offshore areas.

* Assurances that oil companies will retain enough profit from current operations to undertake the massive exploration programs needed to launch needed production in ''frontier'' areas.

Shell Oil president John F. Bookout recently complimented Americans for reducing their dependence on imported oil and improving the nation's energy situation. He added, however, that this achievement carries with it the dangerous temptation ''to be lulled into complacency and to squander the opportunity to protect America against future energy crises.''

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