Oil industry doing slow burn over Reagan energy policy

With a nearly unanimous voice, the oil industry is warning that flattening production and profits are putting the brakes on measures to deal with future energy shortages.

Says Gulf Oil chairman James E. Lee, ''To the degree that we can afford it, now is the time to acquire alternate energy reserves.'' But he added that ''while we will seek the reserves now, commercial development of these synfuels will have to wait for more favorable economics . . . . We're stretching out our timetable for their development.''

Another part of the problem, say oilmen, is the administration decision to postpone development of alternate energy sources. They see major long-term costs arising from this policy.

The Reagan administration replies that the free market is working effectively to control energy prices, supply, and consumption.

''The US is far better prepared today to deal with an oil supply interruption than we were in previous years,'' says one Department of Energy spokesman. ''Because our consumption is down, our imports are down, and so we are less vulnerable than we were in past years.''

Another official adds that synfuel development should also be guided by the free market instead of ''continuing subsidies for programs which may be basic turkeys.''

Such trust in the free market is not universal.

Harvard University lecturer Daniel Yergin, now finishing his latest book on the world energy situation, ''Global Insecurity,'' predicts a repeat of the 1973 energy crisis unless the Reagan administration abandons the view ''that the energy crisis is over and any new problems can be settled by the free market.''

Houston-based energy consultant and petroleum engineer H.F. Keplinger is equally convinced that the recent oil glut and price reductions are a temporary phenomenon. The next energy crisis is not a question of ''if'' but ''when,'' he says. He sees the West returning to energy shortages late this year or early in 1983.

Mr. Keplinger says that to prepare for a future crunch, the US should ''aggressively pursue sources of alternate energy to account for any shortfall in oil and gas production.''

But he adds that alternate energy possibilities such as nuclear, coal, oil shale ''have been delayed, if not completely stymied, by current economic conditions and by the activities of various political and environmental groups without regard for the devastating effect this will have on the world's ability to feed and clothe itself.''

The glossy annual reports just released by the major oil companies reflect these concerns. Company executives boast of the promises offered by drilling under 5,000 feet of water offshore or releasing gas from ''tight sands'' with space-age injection and fracturing techniques. The bottom line for most annual reports, however, is that:

* US and world demand will drop in 1982.

* Industry losses will continue.

* Spending for 1982 will remain at or below 1981 levels in many key areas.

Standard Oil Company of Indiana chairman John E. Swearingen's letter to shareholders argues that government policies are restricting the industry's ability to pursue important energy development and exploration programs. ''With leaseholdings in the US much larger than our principal competitors, we have more than ample prospects for new investment,'' he writes. ''But the money to pursue all these opportunities simply is not available.''

Standard Oil is holding capital and exploration spending for 1982 at last year's $5.2 billion level and has plans for ''reducing costs and improving efficiency in all segments of our business.''

Such industry-wide stretch-outs, say experts such as Henry Keplinger and Daniel Yergin, leave the United States more vulnerable to future energy shortages.

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