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What future may hold for world oil

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Faced with a flurry of warnings that world oil prices might collapse, triggering either an international financial crisis or a bonanza for the recession-squeezed West, oil industry leaders respond with a string of ''don'ts'' for Americans.

* Don't panic.

* Don't expect more than the modest oil price decline.

* Don't write off OPEC as a cartel past its prime.

* Don't abandon your energy-saving efforts.

* Don't forget that a sharp oil price rise could be as close as the next Middle East conflict.

* Don't expect a plunge in your gasoline or heating costs even if oil prices do take an unexpected tumble below the $28-a-barrel price many industry analysts consider the likely floor, given present conditions.

Warren Davis, chief economist for Gulf Oil Corporation, comments that ''our best judgment as of this moment is still that the official OPEC [$34] price will probably not be decreased by any very great amount.''

After noting that the volatile Middle East situation can produce endless surprises, Mr. Davis concludes, ''It is conceivable that the marker crude might go down as low as $30 a barrel, but I think it's also quite conceivable that Saudi Arabia might manage to keep right on holding it at $34.'' He rates the likelihood of an open price war among members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries ''very small.'' Davis says the more likely possibility is that the Saudis will respond to reduced world oil demand by ''cutting the price of their marker crude to shock the other OPEC members back into line, and the shock will work, with OPEC prices stabilizing $2 to $4 below where they are now.''

OPEC members have an incentive to stick together, says Davis: ''If they get to fighting each other, what's to keep the price from falling back to $2 a barrel? . . .''

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