After the oil glut gluttony: why Mideast oil remains crucial to East and West

The world isn't going to run out of oil in 30 years, as we were told in 1974. But it isn't likely to have bargain-basement $15-per-barrel oil by the end of 1985 - and a decade of glut - as we were told last week.

The world economic recovery and the collective self-interest of the oil-producing nations will likely stave off a drastic collapse of prices, although buyers will probably see a short-term period of figures lower than today's reduced spot-market quotes.

That, in summary, is the opinion of two analysts who have proven generally right through decades of supply-demand peaks and valleys.

With our planet increasingly calibrated and inventoried, why do wild swings of resource forecasting occur? It's a matter of too many variables for easy equation-solving. Oil is at the mercy of the same complex interactions that make economic forecasting only somewhat less fallible than soothsaying. Until economists can more accurately project the ups and downs of the economy, they won't be able to predict with certainty the demand, supply, and price of petroleum.

Although the petroleum industry has broadly mapped the geologic formations of the globe, we have not yet drilled much of the earth's surface. More than 90 percent of the drilling in the 125 years of the oil age has taken place in the United States. (Even currently pumping wells are predominantly concentrated here. Of 702,000 producing wells in the noncommunist world in 1982, 609,000 - 86 percent - were in the US.)

So world inventories of oil and gas are incomplete. When exploration crews set out to test and then drill in such promising areas as Siberia, the South China Sea, or the salt domes of the Gulf of Mexico, the probabilities look good. But facts are few until bits go down.

All this is of interest, of course, not just as an abstract equation with many variables. Heating, cooling, transportation, and manufacturing costs are second only to food and fiber costs in determining how well people around the world can live on their income. And petroleum costs affect food and fiber prices as well in all but the most subsistence economy.

Almost as important is the effect of oil on the world balance of power. Take, for example, two European alliances: NATO and the Warsaw Pact (or the EEC and Comecon). Each group has a built-in tendency to act independently. In the next decade, that tendency will probably be accentuated by competition for secure supplies of oil, primarily in the Mideast.

US officials fretted last year over Western Europe's becoming too dependent on Soviet natural gas. Despite plans in West Germany to make sure no region of the country was more than 16 percent dependent on Soviet gas, Washington worried about the still-to-be completed new pipeline from Western Siberia.

Analysts projecting Soviet production over the remainder of the century believe that Moscow, ironically, is facing a problem of its own. This stems from a shrinking ability to fuel its allies in Eastern Europe.

In mid-June Harvard's Russian Research Center it reported that ''the Soviets seem to have arrested their decline in oil production.'' For the first quarter of the year, production was 99.9 percent of what it was in the same quarter of 1983. And natural gas output was 9 percent above the '83 figure. But that is not enough to fuel both Soviet and East European industry, let alone allow for even modest growth.

According to the Oil Economists Handbook, Soviet internal consumption of oil rose in the decade after 1971 from 279.2 million metric tons a year to 444.1 million tons a year. Eastern European consumption rose from 61.3 million to 102. 4 million tons a year.

The striking fact is that the consumption figures for the USSR and its East-bloc empire march steadily upward. There is simply no downturn marking the success of fuel conservation measures, as there is in the comparable figures for the US and Western Europe. US consumption turned down after 1978; Western Europe after 1979.

Unless central planners in Moscow can increase efficiency by economic reform, or sharply increase petroleum production, Soviet industry will suckle more fuel and leave less for Comecon nations every year.

Both superpowers have a future oil problem. Moscow's is economic and technical. Washington's is geological. Moscow almost certainly has further wealth in unexplored or undrilled fields, but lacks capital for tapping and transporting it. Washington faces diminishing returns and accelerating costs per barrel of oil. (The US, however, has a much brighter picture in natural gas.)

To grasp the relative American shrinkage, look at two comparisons with the Middle Eastern oil states. James Critchfield, president of Tetra Tech International, estimates that production from the average well in the Mideast is about 50 times the average per/well in the US. And he calculates that the average cost of exploration in the Mideast is only about 1/10th that in the US.

That helps to explain why so much less is heard nowadays of the old Nixon slogan ''energy independence.''

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