Oil on troubled waters


THE HIGH PRICE of oil focused the world's attention by week's end. It was a subject of summit diplomacy in the corridors of the United Nations, the cause of industrial action turning French roads into chaos and a wild-card threat to the predictability of the U.S. election.

This is a tribute to President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, whose election transformed both his country's oil policy and the viability of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) as an oil cartel.

Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Clinton agreed that $25 a barrel would be a healthy crude oil price. This offered the developed world hope that Saudi Arabia would prevail at the weekend OPEC meeting in Vienna to raise production quotas by 700,000 barrels a day, to bring down the price that soared above $34 Thursday but fell $2 yesterday.

In other words, Venezuela made OPEC real again, but Saudi Arabia still dominates it. Good news came from an unlikely source, President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, who endorsed a rise in production proportional to demand.

No American consumer should harbor the illusion that the low world oil prices of just two years ago -- roughly one-third of today's -- are coming back. That situation, which triggered the SUV fad in this country, sprang from a breakdown in OPEC's discipline and economic depression in much of Asia. Both conditions have been reversed.

Whether Saudi Arabia's resolve brings the price down enough is problematic. The likelihood of higher home heating oil prices in the United States this winter is great, even though depleted stockpiles are being replenished.

Any distress in this country before November would harm the presidential nominee of the incumbent party, Al Gore. His adherents will claim that oil taints those nominees whose business it once was, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, though this is persuasive mainly with voters already opposed to them.

The French strikers object to national taxes that exaggerate prices. Crown Prince Abdullah agrees with them. Their mayhem shows how vulnerable the developed countries are to a finite and vanishing world resource.

The present crisis results from world prosperity. If truly low prices return, it will be because recession did, too. Better to adjust to higher prices while speeding development of alternative sources of energy.

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