November 02, 1990|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — Washington.

TEXANS are trying hard not to appear smug this time. They are not flaunting their renewed oil wealth, or sneering at people from less fortunate regions. It's partly superstition -- they can't believe their luck -- and partly hard-learned tact. After their obnoxious behavior the last go-round, they don't want to offend those who regard the Gulf crisis as no cause for celebration.

Nevertheless, the figures are impressive. Texas pumped 716 million barrels of oil last year. The price bumps around a lot these days, but even without actual fighting it is roughly $15 a barrel higher than a year ago. That works out to a nice $10 billion infusion into the state economy. Texas's proved oil reserves as of 1988 were over 7 billion barrels. By definition, that was oil that could be profitable at the then-current price of about $13 a barrel. At $33 a barrel, that oil is worth $140 billion more.

The numbers derive from one of my favorite well-thumbed volumes, the Basic Petroleum Data Book, published three times a year by the American Petroleum Institute. When it comes to dreams of avarice, ''Dallas'' and ''Dynasty'' have nothing on it. The latest oil crisis, like earlier ones, is redistributing wealth on a scale that trivializes all surrounding policy debates, such as our recent tiff over taxes and last spring's discussion about financial aid for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

The world is extracting oil from the ground at a rate of about 21 billion barrels a year. (The petroleum people call it ''production'' but I prefer ''extraction'': they didn't make the stuff.) A $15 price increase means a transfer of over $300 billion a year from unlucky people to lucky ones. Total world reserves as of January 1 were slightly over a trillion barrels (and growing, by the way). The recent price increase, if it holds, raises the value of those assets by almost three times the entire U.S. gross national product.

The U.S. consumes over 6 billion barrels of oil a year. Our gulf crisis ''surcharge,'' at $15 a barrel, approaches $100 billion a year, about half of which goes to domestic extractors and half to foreigners.

I do not mean to suggest that anyone actually relishes this crisis. But owners of oil would have to be superhuman not to have mixed feelings with that kind of money at stake.

As in earlier episodes, domestic oil extractors have managed to compound their gain in Washington. The budget bill includes a variety of new tax breaks for oil and gas. Although they are supposedly intended to encourage increased exploration and drilling, these tax favors generally do not distinguish between truly new production and oil that is being pumped anyway. They are piously directed at ''small'' producers, as if the typical small oil producer really needed to worry where his next Mercedes was coming from.

Who else wins big from the new oil crisis? There have been the usual accusations of rip-off directed at the big oil companies. The charges are somewhat unfair. The companies have not been overcharging at the pump. It's true that pump prices took off quickly after August 2 and have not come down as crude oil prices moderated. But the pump price never reflected the full increase in crude prices. The big windfall is in extracting oil from the ground, not in refining it into gasoline. For Arco, which extracts almost exactly as much oil as it refines, profits are way up. For Mobil, which refines more than twice as much oil as it extracts, profits are down.

Saudi Arabia wins twice: first, in higher prices for the oil it already selling, and second, by selling an extra 2 million barrels a day as a service to the war effort. Last year's Saudi production was about 1.8 billion barrels. An extra $15 profit per barrel equals $27 billion a year. Two million new barrels a day at $33 a barrel is another $24 billion in revenue (less $1.95 or whatever pittance it costs to get the oil out of the ground out there). Total: more than $50 billion. This should temper our gratitude for the $12 billion the Saudis have offered to pay in support of American forces defending their relative freedom.

The world's biggest oil extractor is the Soviet Union. The Soviets extract more than 4 billion barrels a year and export about a fifth of that. Until recently, most Soviet exports have been to members of the Eastern bloc at essentially fictional prices. But that ends January 1, when the Soviet Union starts charging its former satellites world prices and demanding payment in hard currency. At $33 a barrel, a fifth of Soviet production would bring in something approaching $30 billion. The Soviet Union also exports huge quantities of natural gas, whose price will go up in tandem with oil.

And the losers in the great oil wealth transfer? Eastern Europe, which was just steeling itself for the shock of paying $18 of hard currency for a barrel of oil, when it learned it would have to pay more than $30. The cost is in the billions per nation, making our aid offer of the odd $100 million here and there look even more irrelevant. The non-oil Third World loses big again, as usual.

And of course American consumers, who, though they lose the least from the highest base, canbe counted upon to complain the loudest.

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