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ENERGY: The Arabs’ New Oil Squeeze: Dimouts, Slowdowns, Chills

22 minute read

Rushing to work last week, John Doe, American, swung his car onto the freeway—only to discover that the posted speed limit had been reduced from 60 m.p.h. to 50 m.p.h. When he stopped at a gas station for a refill, he learned that overnight the price had gone up 2¢ per gal. At his office he felt unusually cool because the thermostats had been pushed down a couple of degrees, to a brisk 68º. Later, when he finished work and was driving home, he noticed that the lights on outdoor advertising signs had been doused. In his living room he was greeted by his children, who gleefully reported that their school would be closed for a month this winter—in order to save oil.

In the backward but wakening desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, there was plenty of oil, and the wealth that it brought was beginning to show. Building cranes stuck their necks up everywhere in the few cities; Ferraris and Mercedes glistened in the showrooms, and the markets bulged with imported consumer goods. The national treasury was overflowing with foreign exchange, and there was talk of starting new industries to be fueled and financed by oil: petrochemicals, aluminum, steel. Indeed, Saudi Arabia was strong enough that it could afford to cut back oil production in order to make the rest of the world pay a higher price for it—in more ways than one.

As the voracious demand for oil increasingly outstripped new sources of supply in recent years, an energy crisis crept up on the world with fateful inevitability. Yet, despite spreading signs of scarcity, most government leaders in the U.S., Europe and Japan paid little heed to calls from oilmen for urgent measures to expand energy resources and curb waste. Instead, they chose to believe that there was time to formulate some painless strategy to avert a genuine global emergency.

Now time has abruptly run out. The Arabs, who control nearly 60% of the world’s proven deposits, are slowing down the flow. Through this strategy of squeeze, they hope to pressure the industrial nations into forcing Israel to make peace on terms favorable to the Arabs. Moreover, they are steadily intensifying their oil shakedown. Originally they planned to reduce production by at least 5% each month. Later they embargoed all oil shipments to the U.S. and The Netherlands, in punishment for their support of Israel. Last week, showing new unity and clout, ten Arab countries announced that production for November will be slashed a minimum of 25% below the September total of 20.5 million bbl. per day. Though there has been promising progress toward a lasting settlement in the Middle East, the Arabs vow that they will continue their cutbacks and embargoes until Israel withdraws behind its 1967 borders and settles the Palestinian refugees’ claims for land or money—or both.

The guiding force of the Arab oil strategy is the shrewd, durable and ascetic leader of Saudi Arabia, King Feisal ibn Abdul Aziz al Saud. Feisal’s raw desert kingdom sits atop the world’s richest oil deposit; the best estimates of Saudi Arabia’s proven reserves run to 137 billion bbl.—one-fifth of the world’s total. Feisal’s oil wealth has made him a combination banker and big brother to the Arab nations. He also commands special respect among the world’s 471 million Moslems because his kingdom embraces Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. Feisal has a keener understanding of the West than most Arab leaders, and since he became king nine years ago, his relations with Europe and particularly the U.S. have been good.

The Saudi king long resisted calls by such firebrands as Libya’s Strongman Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s President Ahmed Hassan Bakr that the Arabs wield their “oil weapon” for political gains. But after Egypt and Syria invaded Israel last month, Feisal finally agreed to cut back the flow of oil. Later, when President Nixon announced that he would ask Congress to send Israel $2.2 billion worth of arms, Feisal exploded with rage and shut off all the oil to the U.S.

Global Change. Feisal’s decision to scale down led the rest of the Arab world into a rare show of unity. In the Moslem Middle East, only non-Arab Iran continues to pump and ship oil in normal amounts. Last week, accepting the credentials of the new U.S. ambassador, James Akins, Feisal said that the Arabs were determined to stand fast this time and that they could not be “forthcoming” on the issue of energy as long as the U.S. held its old position on Israel. It is a measure of the rise of Arab power in world affairs that the absolute monarch of a far-off desert kingdom can make life difficult for Americans.

The implications of the oil warfare reach far beyond the Arab-Israeli dispute. Not since World War II has any event carried more potential for global change. Even if the Arabs were to reopen their taps tomorrow, the world would never again be the same. The sudden shortage of fuel has finally jolted governments into a realization that the era of cheap and ample energy is dead and that people will have to learn to live permanently with less heating, lighting and transport and pay more for each of them. That awareness will force nations to conserve energy and push costly searches for new supplies and technology. Sweeping changes will be made in the way people work, travel and spend their leisure time.

The consequences will be particularly hard felt in the U.S., which burns about one-third of the world’s oil and stands to depend increasingly on foreign supplies. Last week, in a television address to the nation, President Nixon implored Congress to create an agency that would be given much more funding than the Manhattan Project, which produced the wartime atomic bomb. The aim of this new energy research and development administration would be to develop enough domestic petroleum, nuclear, solar and other energy sources to make the U.S. self-sufficient in energy by 1980—an unlikely possibility.

To help the U.S. get through the winter with the least disruption, the President issued some immediate belt-tightening directives and requests. These aim to reduce the nation’s consumption of oil by almost the amount that the Arabs are withholding. If the Arab boycott continues much longer, it will cut 2,000,000 to 3,000,000 bbl. out of the normal U.S. supply of 17 million bbl. per day. To make up for that, Nixon:

> Ordered public utilities and other companies to halt any plans for shifting away from coal and into oil as a fuel.

> Reduced the Government’s allocations of jet fuel for aircraft, a move that will diminish the number of commercial flights by more than 10%.

> Called on homeowners to turn their thermostats down to a daytime average of about 68° (v. a normal 74° in American homes).

> Urged managers of offices, factories and stores to reduce energy consumption by 10%, either by using less heat or cutting down on working hours.

> Asked Governors to enact ordinances holding speeds to 50 m.p.h.

The President also urged Congress to enact by December an emergency energy bill that would give him much broader powers. These would include authority to order Daylight Saving Time year round, override temporarily federal, state and local clean-air acts in order to permit more burning of high-polluting coal, and restrict business hours in shopping centers and other enterprises. In addition, the President asked for authority to open up for commercial drilling the naval petroleum reserves at Elk Hills, Calif. All these powers would be given to the President under a bill sponsored by Washington Democratic Senator Henry Jackson. The Jackson bill is likely to pass before Congress adjourns in mid-December.

Even so, many energy experts argued that Nixon’s message was neither urgent or sweeping enough. Says Lester Lees, director of the California Institute of Technology’s environmental control laboratory: “The President’s program is too little and too late.” Lees would have liked the President to call for such measures as revisions in building codes to require more home insulation and reductions in military exercises to save fuel.

Rationing by Spring. Many of the broad controls that the President wants will be enormously difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. Thus he may be forced to use the authority that Congress is likely to give him to impose gasoline rationing, which he greatly wants to avoid. Rationing would be far more disruptive and politically sensitive now than it was during World War II. Today rambling suburbs have spread out of urban areas, and millions of Americans drive to work by car. Still, John Love, the White House Energy Adviser, predicts that gasoline rationing will be necessary by next spring no matter what happens in the Middle East.

The President’s message stirred an immediate response. New Jersey reduced speeds on its major tollways from 60 m.p.h. to 50 m.p.h., and California cut its freeway limits from 70 m.p.h. to 65 m.p.h. Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey and Rhode Island all ordered driving speeds for state-owned vehicles held to 50 m.p.h. Companies also took steps toward conservation. The Coca-Cola Co. shut off all lighted outdoor advertising signs and urged independent bottlers in 50 cities to follow its lead. Sears, Roebuck & Co. ordered temperatures in its stores lowered to 68° and eliminated all Christmas lighting.

Cleveland and Memphis have had to reduce their bus services. In Alexandria, Va., schools ended their practice of keeping lights on all night to discourage vandals. To save heat, schools in Lee, Mass., and West Hartford, Conn., are working on plans to close for a month during December and January. To guarantee heat for their houses, consumers rushed out to buy wood-burning stoves and electric saws. One farmer who will not be touched by scarcities is Dick Shuttleworth, who lives near Muncie, Ind. He has put together a Rube Goldberg contraption that transforms his plentiful supply of manure into methane gas, which powers his lights, refrigerator and even his Ford pickup.

The nation’s economy faces a tough test. Unless the boycott ends soon, some factories will have to close, either for lack of heat, a paucity of fuel to run machines or shortages of petroleum-based raw materials as disparate as chemicals, plastics and textiles. Says Associate U.S. Budget Director John Sawhill: “Sure, the Government can ration oil, but we could wind up rationing steel, aluminum and other things as well.” Evaporating gasoline supplies could put a further painful dent in auto sales; car sales in October fell 11.4%. Less travel, the result of diminished auto traffic and cuts in airline schedules, will hurt hotels, restaurants and the producers of such leisure goods as motor homes and snowmobiles.

There could also be some startling shifts in income in different regions of the U.S. The rush to find new oil deposits in the Southwest and West could fuel booms in those regions. But the East Coast stands to suffer. More dependent on Arab oil than the rest of the country, the highly industrialized region from Boston to Washington might have to chug along on only about 75% of its usual petroleum supply. The full impact of the shutoff is expected in about three weeks, when the last of the shipments from the Persian Gulf are unloaded at American ports. To stretch available oil stocks through the winter, U.S. refineries are already scaling down output, and suppliers are starting to ration petroleum products to their customers. The energy drought could lead to a decline in industrial production and rising unemployment, which could pitch the U.S. economy into a recession. Reacting to just those fears, the stock market suffered its worst one-day plunge since Black Monday, May 28, 1962; last Friday the Dow Jones industrials tumbled 24 points, closing at 908.

The tightening in worldwide oil supplies is also kicking up the cost. Since January Venezuela has doubled its price, to $7.20 per bbl. In the past three weeks, Nigeria’s has almost doubled, to $8.40 per bbl., and Indonesia’s has increased 20%, to $6 per bbl. Price controls on U.S.-produced petroleum will be slowly loosened in the near future in order to tempt oilmen to expand exploration and boost supplies. Rising oil prices will lift the cost of such other fuels as propane, natural gas and even coal.

Air of Siege. In the past year, the Labor Department’s index of wholesale prices of gasoline, heating oil and other refined petroleum products has risen a walloping 40.4%. According to some estimates, within the next few months regular gasoline will probably climb an average of 9¢, to 50¢ per gal. Home heating fuel is expected to almost double in price, to 40¢ or more. Kerosene, diesel oil and jet fuel will all climb proportionately. Rising fuel costs will increase the price of electric power. Altogether, soaring fuel prices will pump $8 billion to $10 billion of pure inflation into the economy. Still, there is a limit to what consumers will pay. Even without Government restrictions, higher prices will force many Americans to forgo some of their wasteful ways: the long, speedy, aimless car trips; round-the-clock air” conditioning and hothouse home heating.

The Arab oil cutbacks have hurt almost all countries. Gasoline prices soared from $1.01 to $1.49 per gal. in India, and to dramatize the seriousness of the shortages, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took to riding in a two-wheeled horse-drawn gig. In The Netherlands, Prime Minister Joop den Uyl pedaled to work on a bike, and a strict ban was imposed on Sunday driving.

In most of Europe, there was a vague air of siege. Fuel prices are going up, driving restrictions have been imposed, and in Britain ration cards have already been printed—just in case. Last week the German Bundestag granted Chancellor Willy Brandt’s government blanket emergency powers to take whatever steps it deems necessary to hold down the use of gasoline and heating oil. The oil emergency has oddly cheered some European intellectuals and other elitists who have shown some disdain for the upward mobility of the masses since World War II. Says Maurice Couve de Murville, France’s former Premier: “It is very much like the Bordeaux wine shortage. Only those who can afford Bordeaux now drink it, and only those who can afford gasoline will be able to drive. That is not an unhealthy thing.”

Last week, at the prodding of Arab diplomats who said bluntly that Europe had to “tilt” its Middle East policies in favor of the Arabs, foreign ministers of the nine-member European Common Market shucked their threadbare cloaks of neutrality. They jointly called on Israel to accept a settlement agreeable to the Arabs. Though the open capitulation to Arab demands has a craven air about it, the Europeans have no real alternative. They depend on the Arabs for 73% of their petroleum. Unlike the U.S., they have little oil of their own.

Unlikely Catalyst. In short, the tables have turned in the oil trade—and in oil diplomacy. Largely because Feisal has withheld his oil, the sellers now completely dominate the buyers. In many ways, Feisal is an unlikely catalyst for such sweeping change. He is basically the monarch of a 19th century state that is edging cautiously into modern times (see box page 90).

Saudi Arabia is almost the size of Texas and Alaska combined, and 98% of it is barren, reddish brown desert; there are no rivers or lakes. Summer temperatures boil up to 120° in the forenoon, and nights can be shiveringly cool. During the month-long spring gale, or shamal, the blowing sand sifts into the loose robes worn by most Saudis and mantles the cities in white powdery dust.

Nobody knows the exact population of Saudi Arabia; estimates range from 3,400,000 to 8,200,000. Skills are in short supply, and many Saudis generally consider manual labor beneath their dignity. Much of the work is done by 300,000 foreign laborers: Yemenites in the construction trades and Jordanians and Palestinians in the offices. There are some modern oases: Riyadh, the centrally located capital, and Jidda, the commercial center on the Red Sea, have expansive boulevards and plenty of low-rise apartment houses, shops and government buildings. But there are no movies and no night life.

Until this century, Saudi Arabia had little contact with the West. The land seemed so uninviting that neither Britain nor France bothered to set up spheres of influence, and practically the only foreign visitors were pilgrims to Mecca and Medina. Then, in 1933, a group of prospectors from Standard Oil of California arrived in the country hoping that they might strike oil. They brought in the first well in 1938, and later explorations confirmed that the unprepossessing kingdom of sand was virtually floating on a sea of petroleum.

Over the years Socal was joined by three other oil giants—Exxon, Texaco and Mobil—to form the Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco). Western-owned oil companies in the Middle East were able to drive one-sided bargains with the weak, quarreling and often ignorant Arab regimes. The corporations controlled exploration, production, shipping and marketing, and paid the governments as little as they could.

This rich fabric of oil concessions began to unravel in the late ’60s, when the rise of rabid Arab nationalism coincided with the increasing dependence of Japan and the West on Middle East oil. By 1970 Libya was becoming a major producer, and its low-sulfur oil was selling for $2.23 per bbl. The Libyan government asked for a moderate 10¢ per bbl. increase, but a group of Western oil companies offered only 6¢. Led by Colonel Gaddafi, the government struck back by cutting production by 25% and lifting the posted price by 30¢, to $2.53 per bbl., the largest increase in Middle Eastern history until then. Most of the oil-company chiefs agreed to stand together and resist the rise, but Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum, capitulated.

Buying In. From that point on, the Arab oil states have been raising prices with impunity, and some are demanding ever larger “participation” shares in the ownership of the oil companies. None is in a stronger position than Saudi Arabia; through a buy-in plan (a form of nationalization) that started this year, Feisal’s government owns 25% of Aramco, and that share will rise to 51% in 1983. Last year the Saudis earned $2.2 billion from oil, and their profits are bound to increase this year despite the production cutback—because they have just raised oil prices by 70%. For example, Arabian light oil now sells for $5.11 a bbl., not counting the cost of shipping it to the U.S. By contrast Texas oil costs about $4 a bbl.

Even if Saudi Arabia buys arms for other Arab countries, helps finance the rebuilding of their war-battered economies, continues its own development programs and holds to a 25% cutback in production of crude, its monetary reserves will rise from around $4.5 billion to $20 billion in 1975. Most of its reserves are on deposit in banks in the U.S., Britain, Switzerland and France. Thus, the Saudis will have increasingly great world financial power.

Feisal insists that he wants to be on friendly terms with the U.S. and that both countries have much to gain in a close relationship. American oil companies and other contractors operating in Saudi Arabia repatriated $1 billion in profits to the U.S. last year, a healthy contribution to the nation’s balance of payments. The Saudis are also the biggest Middle Eastern customers for American goods and services, such as airplanes, heavy construction gear and consulting assistance. Feisal, religiously conservative and vigorously antiCommunist, is even more worried than U.S. leaders about the spread of Soviet influence in the Middle East.

The King’s other great hate is, of course, the Zionists, whom he oddly equates with Communists, despite Israel’s pro-Western, anti-Soviet stand. He is enraged that the Israelis control the Moslem shrines in Jerusalem, and he probably will not be satisfied until Moslems regain authority over the Arab part of the city. Says one Western diplomat: “The old man is getting more religious than he has been. He wants to pray in the Mosque of Omar before he dies.”

Whether or not Feisal gets his wish and starts the oil gushing again, his use of the petroleum embargo has shocked the U.S. into vastly changing its energy policy. Under the best of circumstances, it could take at least 15 years for the nation to fulfill the goal of becoming self-sufficient in energy. During that time the U.S. may well remain dependent to some degree on the Middle East. Of course, there is plenty of oil outside the Arab sphere of influence; including deposits in Iran and the Communist world, these proved reserves exceed 190 billion bbl. Thus the U.S. can increase its oil Imports from Venezuela, Nigeria and Indonesia, but the greater the demand from these countries, the higher their prices are likely to go.

Though the nation has vast potential resources of petroleum, oil shale, natural gas and coal, not to mention nuclear energy, they will be neither cheap nor easy to exploit. But they will be exploited now because the price is right.

Newly discovered domestic oil, which is exempt from price controls, now commands $5.50 or $6 per bbl., about 60% higher than the going rate earlier this year. That high price makes it worthwhile for oilmen to squeeze more oil out of deep or inaccessible wells that previously did not pay. Recently, there has been a rush of exploratory drilling in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

Untapped Deposits. The Government is also tripling the amount of leasing for offshore drilling along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Geologists reckon that large untapped deposits lie off the coasts of Long Island, northern Florida and elsewhere. Leasing has been slowed by fierce opposition from residents, who fear that their shore fronts will be ruined by big black derricks on the blue horizon, by the clutter of docking facilities and possible oil spills. Even if all opposition vanished, it would take three to five years to find and drill new wells offshore. A surer way to expand domestic sources would be for Congress to finally approve the Alaska pipeline bill, enabling the nation to tap the rich North Slope fields, which are believed to have at least 50 billion bbl. of recoverable oil. If the pipeline were in operation today, it could be supplying 11% of the nation’s needs. As matters stand, it will take five years to build.

Oil-bearing shale has huge potential for the long term. The Green River formation, which runs through Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, contains an estimated 600 billion bbl. of low-polluting shale oil, enough to fill the country’s needs at current consumption levels for almost 100 years. About 72% of the deposits are on federally owned lands, and the Government will probably soon lease some of them for commercial plants, where oil can be extracted by crushing and heating the brown shale. It could take six years to get such plants into operation, and refined shale oil can probably be produced in large quantity at $5 per bbl.

Government regulation of natural-gas prices has held down exploration, and supplies are badly depleted. A bill to deregulate prices is before Congress, but it is having tough going. Reason: it would hit consumers with higher prices, and congressional opponents argue that it would bring a windfall to producers and pipeline companies. Still, the Federal Power Commission will have to permit higher prices while preserving some regulation as a lever.

The U.S. has massive deposits of coal; but because of strong opposition to strip mining and a shortage of miners, getting coal in needed quantities may take a long time. In addition, most coal pollutes, though it could be cleaned up by using “stack gas cleaning” methods. The Environmental Protection Agency plans to use Government muscle—including injunctions—to make high-polluting companies apply the technology.

The most important and controversial energy source for the foreseeable future is nuclear power. Though atomic research has been going on for three decades, only 37 plants are in operation—generating 5% of the nation’s electricity—and 61 more are under construction. Part of the reason for this lag is that lengthy public hearings must be held in areas where nuclear power stations are to be built. Yet caution is justified. Safety systems have never been put to a real test—simply because there have been no major accidents yet—and some Atomic Energy Commission safety experts doubt the systems’ effectiveness. The greatest delays, however, came as a result of trying to swiftly develop giant reactors from small ones. This caused difficulties in design and materials; some of the reactors simply broke down when they were put on line at power utilities. Though most of these difficulties will be overcome, it will be at least ten years before nuclear plants make a big contribution to the country’s energy needs.

Unexpected Favor. Senator Jackson and others have long argued that much more effort should go in researching and developing a wide variety of new energy sources: oil from shale, synthetic oil and gas from coal. Congress would take an important step by approving Nixon’s proposed energy resources development agency, which might first search for more efficient and economical methods of removing pollutants from coal and high-sulfur oil.

The only way that the U.S. can scrape through the next several years without major economic and social disruptions is to ease off dramatically on energy consumption. Even before the Arabs cut off their oil, the nation—and much of the rest of the world—faced an energy crunch in a few more years. The Arabs have moved the U.S. to take action now, before its dependence on Middle East oil was greater and its needs larger and harder to meet. By rousing the nation, Feisal and his fellow Arabs may well have done all Americans an unexpected favor for the future.

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