Soviet natural gas to West Europe: how much is too much?
''We know what happened when we all became too dependent on OPEC oil. ''Now we are wary of becoming too dependent on any single supplier of natural gas - such as the Soviet Union.''
These words were from a source close to the ministerial meeting of the 21 -nation International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris May 8. They summed up the basic issue that the ministers, including both energy and trade, met to resolve.
The relationship between energy and security was one of a number of complex international issues taken up by the IEA and then by the 24-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris May 8 to 11. While the OECD will concentrate on trying to find ways out of the economic recession, the IEA has hammered away at East-West energy policy.
The Reagan administration has been deeply worried that France, West Germany, and other European countries are buying too much gas from the Soviet's Siberian fields.
US officials and a number of their European counterparts argue that it is simply too dangerous to rely on the Kremlin to keep pumping gas to the West in times of international crises.
The opposing view heard in Europe is that the Soviets have a record of scrupulously abiding by their commercial agreements. Besides, Moscow needs the hard currency it will earn - and it could hardly be a less reliable supplier of gas than the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has been of oil.
This view also holds that using Soviet gas is one way of reducing reliance on the expensive and volatile oil market, and that US fears are exaggerated.
The background is a widespread European unhappiness with President Reagan's tough rhetoric against the Soviets. Mr. Reagan's position is seen as simplistic and not fully understanding of the fact that Western Europe needs trade to create jobs in the recession. ''The Russians are Europeans, too,'' as some here put it.
So the IEA staff was commissioned late last year to conduct an exhaustive factual study into just how much gas Europeans are buying and the purposes for which it is used.
The study has been controversial. The French, the West Germans, and others have wanted its findings to confirm the wisdom of their own long-term contract with Moscow which will generate enormous quantities of gas by 1990.
At one point, however, the US proposed that the study recommend a cutoff of imports from any supplier delivering 30 percent or more of a nation's natural gas requirements.
This would have hit France the hardest. By 1990 France will be importing more than 30 percent of its natural gas from the Soviets, although Soviet gas will reportedly amount to only about 4 percent of overall French energy needs. The US has dropped its 30 percent cutoff idea, after intensive backstage talks in the IEA and in the Committee on Energy Policy of the OECD.
''On the substance of the arguments, the French agreed that security questions do arise if you import too much energy from the Soviets or any other single supplier, such as the Algerians,'' according to a high IEA source.
The problem is particularly acute for France and West Germany, which use up to 80 percent of their gas supplies to heat and fuel residential areas. Any cutoff in deliveries for whatever reasons could quickly become both a human and a political crisis.
Not only Soviet diplomatic motives are involved. IEA experts have also been studying whether the Russians will indeed be able to keep the gas flowing through the new pipelines now being built, whether they can maintain the pipes properly, and whether they might need to divert gas supplies from time to time to their own cities and farms.
When the ministers met in Paris May 8, they were to adopt the IEA staff study on energy and security. The study did not contain the 30 percent cutoff figure but was expected to recommend that Western Europe try to decrease its reliance on single suppliers of gas, such as the Soviet Union.
But the ministers still have a diplomatic problem. The French were unwilling to be seen in public bowing to the US view of the Soviets, especially at a time when Paris had refused to take part in a special series of pre-Williamsburg summit meetings organized by the US. The issue became how to work out diplomatic means by which France could associate itself with the study's findings.