The world may be headed toward a new energy supply crisis of historic proportions because of dwindling oil resources in the Soviet Union. But the problem could be eased through Western cooperation in developing the vast reserves of natural gas in Siberia.
This is the view of a number of European and American experts meeting here this past week under the sponsorhip of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). They suggested that the terms of this Western cooperation with the Eastern bloc's leader should be worked out very carefully in advance.
The West, they point out, should coordinate its efforts to gain maximum political or economic benefits.
One European speaker suggested that in return for Western assistance in exploiting Siberia's natural gas deposits, a pledge or code of conduct for Soviet nonintervention in the oil-producing countries might be extracted.
These issues and recommendations take on added immediacy amid reports that a breakthrough might be near for West European financing of a mammoth pipeline to carry natural gas from Siberia to Western Europe. American officials have expressed concern about the resulting European dependency on Soviet energy supplies, leading to a vulnerability to Soviet political blackmail.
Most of these experts on Soviet energy discounted previous estimates by the US Central Intelligence Agency that the Soviet Union itself, now the world's largest oil producer, could become a net importer of oil and a competitor for supplies on the world market. But they were virtually unanimous that Soviet oil production would dwindle in coming years and that it could be the Kremlin's East European allies who feel the pinch of reduced Soviet deliveries first and seek supplies in the Middle East and elsewhere.
This could usher in a tense energy and geopolitical period in East-bloc countries. Experts at the NATO seminar were divided over whether this would make Eastern Europe even more dependent on Soviet energy or stimulate them to seek accommodations with oil producers.
"These would not be economic transactions. They would be political transactions," noted one participant, because the East bloc or Comecon countries would be unable to pay for outside oil supplies with hard currency.
During this period, there could be a risk, some experts here acknowledge, that the Soviet Union would intervene militarily in the Middle East oilfields to secure supplies for its satellites. Peter Wiles of the London School of Economics also raised the possibility of the Soviets seeking oil (that so far has gone to Western nations) in countries such as Angola, in Africa, that are friendly to Moscow.
This potentially dangerous pressure on oil markets could be relieved somewhat through development of the huge natural gas deposits in western Siberia. Negotiations have been under way for nearly a year between the Soviet Union and West European banks for loans of some $10 billion for construction of a 3,000 -mile pipeline from the Siberian fields to West Europe.
This natural gas supply is attractive to Europeans, who would get about 20 percent of their total gas imports in the late 1980s -- and also land huge pipeline and construction orders for work the Soviet Union cannot handle itself. But considerable American concern has been expressed about the wisdom of providing this aid to the Soviet Union and creating a European dependency on Soviet gas.
Most participants at the NATO conference felt that the development of the gas fields was in both Soviet and Western interests. University of Kansas Prof. Leslie Dienes commented that "there is a mutual, but not simultaneous dependence."
An embargo on Western aid would perhaps dangerously delay but not stop the Soviets from developing the rich deposits. The Soviets desperately need this natural gas to fill the energy and hard-currency gap that will be created by the gradual exhaustion of their current oil reserves.
Participants familiar with the natural gas development plans called them gigantic and absolutely dependent on Western financing and technology if they are to result in actual production by the mid-1980s, when the Soviet oil output tapers off.
London energy consultant Jonathan Stern, for example, called the gas deposits "vast" and the plans "awesome." He also felt the Soviet Union was capable of eventually producing the large-diameter pipelines and compressor stations that it does not now have the capacity to do, should the West deny it access.
But most of the experts felt that Siberian gas would not completely replace the diminishing oil resources and cope with growing demand. "Even under the most optimistic scenario, thge USSR will not be able to simultaneously satisfy domestic demand, meet East European requirements, and provide sufficient volumes to the export sector needed to generate hard-currency earnings to offset grain and technology imports," commented Lt. Col. Tyrus Cobb, professor at the US Military Academy.
Few analysts at the NATO conference advocated a Western financial and technological embargo, which could backfire to make the Soviet Union more desperate for supplies. But there was debate on what political price it should be made to pay for this Western aid. Colonel Cobb suggested coordinated Western policies and pressures to influence Soviet good behavior while not harboring any ill usions that they would always work.