The Bush administration says world oil supplies are adequate to offset any potential losses from the outbreak of war, a position backed up independently by figures from an international energy watchdog.
"There is no oil shortage," Assistant Energy Secretary John Easton told the House Energy Committee."Should hostilities occur, the Department of Energy believes that currently available strategic and commercial stocks as well as oil in floating storage would be sufficient to offset any plausible further disruption in supplies," he said.
Meanwhile, the Paris-based International Energy Agency reported that the industrialized world has built up more than three months' supply of oil in case of a war, the highest level since 1982.
The agency reported Wednesday that oil supplies rose at a rate of 200,000 barrels per day in the last three months of 1990, confounding its earlier projections of a daily stock reduction of 500,000 barrels per day.
Output is at an eight-month high, the agency said, meaning that together with oil stocks held by companies, the 24 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development currently have 469 million metric tons of oil.
Administration officials cited worldwide stocks of crude oil 150 million barrels higher than at any time in the last four years, lower demand because of higher prices, government stockpiles available and perhaps 100 million barrels of unsold oil now at sea.
The congressional committee heard testimony that under a worst-case war scenario, world markets might be faced with a loss of up to 2.5 million barrels of oil a day.
On its own, the United States could within 16 days begin supplying markets at the rate of 3.5 million barrels a day from its 587 million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve of crude oil kept in underground storage caverns in Texas and Louisiana.
Energy Secretary James Watkins has stated that he would recommend releasing oil from the reserve if a Gulf war threatened shortages.
But Easton and other government officials declined to state publicly how high they think prices will go if shooting begins, saying the information is classified secret.
Independent oil marketers warned the committee that a Gulf war would send prices soaring even if there were no real shortages.
The New England Fuel Institute, representing 1,200 oil dealers, suggested that the Bush administration should announce the sale of 1 million barrels of oil per day from the reserve for 30 days starting with the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
The idea of a such a preemptive move to keep oil markets in line drew some support from committee members, especially Democrats.
But the Bush administration has refused to act solely to keep prices down, despite complaints in Congress that it has allowed higher oil prices to aggravate a weakened economy.