WHEN oilmen gather in Houston on Sunday for the annual meeting of the American Petroleum Institute, they will find a city that has recovered and diversified since the oil-price plunge of almost 10 years ago. The bank collapses and condo foreclosures are merely an unpleasant memory.
The oil executives themselves are survivors. Their industry carved a profit margin out of its own hide through layoffs and cost cuts. Now oil companies are thriving, even though today's $16 price of a barrel of oil is lower in real terms than before the 1973 oil embargo.
As for the 12-member Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, ''there's no light at the end of the tunnel,'' says an economist for a Mideast oil producer. With subsidy-distorted economies to support, OPEC members brought on the January 1986 price crash by flooding the market in desperate competition.
When the OPEC oil ministers meet in Vienna on Nov. 21, the agenda will list a familiar topic: quota cheating by some members, including Venezuela. Considering that other members want to cut OPEC's official volume, the trick in Vienna will be to ''get in and out without disaster,'' says the Mideast economist, who requested anonymity.
Economists differ on long-term supply and demand trends. These stargazers derive their forecasts from a galaxy of uncertainties, ranging from technology to Russian politics to the endurance of the Iraqi oil embargo. Some economists expect the real price of oil to slide; others say that it will soar.
''I'm in the camp that doesn't know,'' admits Ted Eck, chief economist at Amoco Corp. in Chicago.
The global demand question revolves around southeast Asia, where economies have grown at a sizzling 10 percent a year for a decade. Demand for oil has grown apace. Economists at the World Bank predict that continued rapid growth, fueled by agreements that are unfettering trade, will continue through 2010.
When Sean O'Dell, chief economist at the International Energy Agency in Paris, plugged the numbers into the IEA's detailed global energy model, he found that global oil consumption would rise from today's 70 million barrels per day to an intimidating 102 million b.p.d. by 2010. ''Something is going to have to give,'' Mr. O'Dell says. Either: