Lessons to be pondered after a decade of oil price fluctuations

The world's first decade of high oil prices is not without its lessons. And at a recent energy seminar at the University of Surrey, experts sought to enunciate what can be learned since oil prices began to jump in 1973, and what can be expected in the future. Some of their conclusions include:

* The role of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has been exaggerated: The Arab-Israeli war was an important factor in the price jump of 1973-74, and fears of shortage and revolution in the Mideast caused the price increase in 1979-80.

* Although OPEC has lost short-term power because production still outstrips world demand and prices have fallen back, OPEC still dominates production capacity. OPEC also controls most of the free world's oil reserves.

* Beware of oil information in the newspapers, on the radio, and on television. The oil industry is releasing large amounts of partial, inaccurate, and speculative data, aimed at affecting the oil market.

Better ways of spreading more solid information are needed, but are blocked because companies, governments, and spot traders still prefer secrecy.

''Energy forecasts (are) nothing more than a demonstration of the law of supply and demand . . . pseudo-knowledge . . . gypsies in fairground tents,'' said British Energy Secretary Nigel Lawson. ''At the end of the day, market forces rule.''

* The Middle East is so volatile and unstable that any forecasts must include the possibility of another Arab-Israeli, Iran-Iraq, or other war that could push prices up almost overnight by causing fear that supplies will be cut.

''This is the most fluid and dangerous period since the Second World War,'' commented Dr. Walid Khadduri, editor of the Middle East Economic Review in Nicosia, Cypress. ''Safety valves can blow. The political outlook is gloomy for the next few months, though the OPEC price ($29 a barrel) is working better than expected so far.''

* The move away from worldwide reliance on oil as a primary energy source will be gradual and marked by temporary bursts of oil use as prices dip.

* The size of inventories held by oil companies and governments is crucial. If buyers stop drawing down their existing inventory of oil this summer and experience even the same demand for oil, their additional purchases from OPEC could add a significant 4 million barrels per day to total world oil demand, according to some estimates. That would push prices up again.

Since 1970, major oil companies have lost most of their control over oil production to governments: Companies hold 17 percent of production, against 72 percent in 1970. An unregulated spot trading market has boomed to 30 or 40 percent of the market.

The chairman of the Shell Transport and Trading Company, Sir Peter Baxendell, commented wryly: ''It is said that experience is the name that everyone gives to their mistakes, and when we talk about the experiences of the past 10 years . . . this rings all too true.''

One other message, this time for the future, came through loud and clear: Watch the Soviets. Moscow is selling more and more oil these days (about 1.5 million barrels a day in Europe). Its prices are firming, and it scrupulously honors commercial contracts. But the Kremlin is unpredictable and represents yet another unstable factor in an already unstable oil world.

''The Soviet Union could be a significant factor in worldwide supplies,'' commented energy editor of Financial Times, Ray Dafter, at a roundtable session. ''They badly need hard currency, and they are suffering (economically).''

The seminar, which drew a large audience for two days of talks that included the British energy minister and oil, coal, and nuclear specialists from France, West Germany, the United States, and the Middle East, took place as oil prices in general seemed to be holding steady at close to OPEC's new rate of $29 a barrel.

OPEC says it is encouraged that its decision to cut prices to $29 will in fact prevent a price tumble. (In a move to sustain that confidence, Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani told a Riyadh magazine April 26 that $29 would hold through 1985.)

Colin Robinson, economics professor at the University of Surrey, told the seminar that world economic growth was about 5 percent a year between 1950 and the early '70s. Energy consumption, he said, rose by almost the same amount a year. Oil - cheap and plentiful - expanded from 25 percent of total world energy consumption in 1950 to more than 45 percent in 1973.

OPEC's own role in the price jumps in the 1970s was ''generally exaggerated, '' the professor said, though it remained a ''convenient scapegoat.'' The 1973- 74 price rises came partly because OPEC began working as a unit to restrict supplies and fight what it saw as exploitation of the third world. The 1973 Arab-Israeli war was another opportunity to choke supplies.

But prices also rose because of genuine fears that oil reserves were being depleted too quickly, and that there was more profit to be made by leaving oil in the ground. In 1979-80, oil prices shot up again because of the Iranian revolution, the early stages of the Iran-Iraq war, and widespread fears of future shortages. OPEC merely passed the higher prices along to buyers.

After 100 years of virtually uninterrupted growth, world oil consumption dropped between 3 and 4 percent in 1980 and 1981, while oil as a percent of world energy use fell by 5 percentage points, to 42 percent. Oil prices would continue to fluctuate, said experts at the seminar, as buyers build up stocks at time of crisis and use them up as prices start downward again.

British Energy Minister Nigel Lawson said the 1973-74 price jump was a ''once-for-all adjustment magnified by an inflationary climate. . . . 1979-80 was essentially the result of a buyers' panic. Oil companies and consuming governments, haunted by . . . 1973, sought to build up their stocks.''

One lesson the minister draws from recent events: Expectations of a change in the nominal (reference) price of oil affect the size of oil stocks much more than do changes in the actual day-to-day price.

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