With the world in the midst of an oil glut, it may seem an unlikely time to talk about oil shortages. As a survival measure, the once-mighty 13-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries agreed last week to another oil price cut.
Yet many petroleum experts and industry executives in the United States are quietly debating whether, in the long run, the stage is being set for another protracted energy crisis of the sort that stunned the world economy in the '70s.
The debate is filled with uncertainty. Its participants are well aware how far off the mark earlier projections of oil supply and demand have been. But some analysts, who believe that the world has embarked on a long-term journey toward another energy crunch, note several warning signs. Among them:
A predicted decline of oil production in many oil fields, all outside Middle East.
The possibility that oil prices may plummet from the current official $28-a-barrel price to $15 to $20 a barrel. Many economists believe such a price decline would undermine investment in alternative energy technologies and conservation.
A dramatic global slowdown in the increase of proven reserves -- oil found in known reservoirs but not yet produced. Despite higher prices, which encouraged exploration and ultimately cut demand and led to a decline in oil production, global reserves have increased only 5 percent since the mid-'70s. Between 1950 and 1973, proven reserves leaped by more than 900 percent.
Estimates that about 56 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and 23 percent of its undiscovered reserves still lie in the Middle East. By the 1990s, according to some predictions, OPEC's share of the world oil market will reach 55 percent, up from this year's 27 percent.
``We're seeing patterns like those that led to the 1973-74 and 1979-80 energy crisis,'' Mobil Oil president Allen E. Murray warned recently. ``We're headed for another round of energy shortages. Certainly by the end of this century. Possibly well before that.''
Many experts disagree. Oil resources are, of course, finite. But rising oil prices over time, the argument goes, will usher in more economical energy alternatives, such as natural gas, and gradually phase out many uses for oil.
In addition, estimates of undiscovered oil reserves have historically been conservative. Few experts predicted the ascendancy of Mexico as a world-class oil producer, for example. And now, both Brazil and India are predicting energy self-sufficiency within a few years, confounding earlier predictions of many experts.
Even if a handful of OPEC countries eventually end up in control of world petroleum resources, many observers doubt whether they will be able to maintain the hammerlock on price and supply they enjoyed in the '70s. Middle East watchers note that the cash appetite of countries from that region could prevent them from closing the oil spigot to boost prices.
In fact, as demand for OPEC oil sank nearly 50 percent from its 1979 peak, total OPEC revenues fell to $150 billion in 1984 from a $275 billion high three years earlier. By one estimate, OPEC members lost nearly $200 billion in oil revenues between 1982 and 1984. This has been a serious economic blow to nations highly dependent on oil revenue for foreign exchange. They based large government spending programs on the old oil revenue projections.
``OPEC countries may eventually get in the driver's seat once again,'' says Eliyahu Kanovsky, an economist from Israel's Bar-Ilan University, who is on leave at New York's Queens College. ``But they probably won't have the strength to exercise their power.''
In sum, these experts say the petroleum age will end not with a bang but with a whimper.
``There is more than enough oil to meet any conceivable demand in the foreseeable future,'' says John Lichtblau, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation. ``It's one thing to predict a large increase in dependency on Middle East oil -- that is a very real possibility -- but it is an entirely different matter to predict an oncoming crisis.''
Critics of the crisis scenarios also caution that petroleum companies, as well as oil-producing countries, have a built-in interest in advocating such theories. Widespread predictions of shortages will likely boost the oil-futures market, for example, thus stabilizing current oil prices or at least checking their decline.
Warnings of future shortages have been used to support longstanding energy tax credits for oil and gas drilling. These were threatened by last year's Treasury Department draft tax-reform plan, but were retained, after heavy lobbying, in the package President Reagan sent to Congress earlier this year. Possible shortages have also been cited as justification to allow drilling in environmentally sensitive locations, such as offshore areas.
``The oil companies have been banging the drum about the coming oil shortage for the last five years,'' says William Turnage, president of the Wilderness Society, an environmental group.
But energy analysts caution against the hasty dismissal of shortage predictions. ``There is an element of self-interest involved when Mobil says there's going to be an energy crisis, but there is a strong element of national interest here as well,'' says Mr. Lichtblau.
Estimates on remaining oil resources vary from 1,100 to 2,000 billion barrels. At present, 21 billion barrels of oil are extracted from the ground each year. If 1985 consumption rates hold, the ultimate depletion of world oil resources would be between 50 and 88 years away.
But those numbers quickly become academic. Long before the day in the 21st century when oil supplies would dwindle into insignificance, other energy sources would have presumably taken over.
Conservation measures might mean an actual decline in consumption rates. Between 1979 and 1982, while inflation-adjusted gross national product (a measure of the production of goods and services) in the US remained the same, Americans cut their oil usage by 17 percent. And unexpected new finds could surface that would expand oil-resource estimates.
Some energy analysts warn against taking those occurrences for granted, however.
While some areas, like the oil fields in Mexico, are yielding more oil that once expected, other promising regions, such Eastern Seaboard of the US, have produced almost nothing. Earlier this year, after the US Geological Survey cut its estimate of undiscovered offshore oil by 55 percent. At the same time, US proven reserves hit their lowest level in 34 years.
The prospect of renewed heavy dependence on OPEC oil by Western industrial nations also concerns some analysts. They advocate the continued stockpiling of fuel in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and a petroleum import tax, to encourage conservation measures and alternative energy sources.
``The Middle East has proven itself an unreliable supplier,'' says G. Henry M. Schuler, head of the energy-security program at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``The greatest problem we will face is the potential for a sudden disruption of the oil supply. That is why we must begin taking steps to protect ourselves.''