SUPPLY: From Output Squeeze to Price Embargo

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>Though U.S. imports of crude oil have dropped, imports of refined products in mid-December were running more than 2.9 million bbl. per day —slightly more than in late September, when the Arab wells were pumping full speed. U.S. officials have steadily reduced their estimates of the likely petroleum "shortfall" and made some fuel allocations more generous. The Federal Energy Office last week announced that airlines in 1974 will be able to buy 95% as much jet fuel as they did in 1972, up from an original allocation of 85%.

>The Economist, an authoritative British magazine, reports that tanker loadings at Persian Gulf oil terminals in late November and early December rose 23% to 43% over a year earlier. The period may have been too short to be statistically meaningful, but the Economist nevertheless concludes that "the Arabs may not have cut production by anything like the amount that they say."

>Last November the West German government officially predicted that a 25% cut in Arab exports would result in a 15% to 20% slash in the country's oil supplies in December. But new statistics show that crude oil imports are down only about 1.5% below daily levels anticipated before the Arab boycott began.

>The Rotterdam-Antwerp pipeline, a key conveyor of crude from the supposedly embargoed Dutch port to Belgium, has been pumping as much oil as it did before the boycott began.

>Except in Britain, which is troubled more by a coal strike than by oil shortages, Christmas throughout Europe was surprisingly normal: on the Continent, lights glittered, traffic was snarled as usual, and retailers did a booming business. Only Sweden and The Netherlands are about to begin gasoline rationing. The Dutch are rationing at least partly out of embarrassment that their supposedly embargoed country had previously instituted conservation measures less stringent than those of their unembargoed neighbors.

Welcome News. Whatever the actual level of Arab oil output, the Christmas announcement from Kuwait is still welcome news. Even if the January production goals represent no real increase from current output, their announcement at least confirms that the Arabs do not intend to squeeze supply so hard as to freeze the West and bring its industry to a halt. But there is a darker side to the Arab proclamations, too.

Since world oil supplies were tight even before the oil weapon was unsheathed, Arab production at 85% of September levels will still leave global output 2.5 million to 3 million bbl. per day short of demand. Moreover, there is always the threat that the oil offensive will go into high gear again. One Arab source told TIME Beirut Bureau Chief Karsten Prager last week that if the Middle East peace talks now taking place in Geneva do not produce results by mid-March, "don't be surprised if the pendulum swings all the way to a 30% reduction" in petroleum output. Most important of all, the latest astonishing price boosts will disrupt the economies of even those Western nations that find Arab oil freely available. By unilaterally hiking the price of crude for the first time, the Arabs not only declared their independence from the big oil companies that have set pricing policies for the past quarter-century but also gave a sure sign of more increases to come.

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