The best defense against fuel shortages this winter is to let capitalism run its course, the economists said. The fact that prices will rise will put the brakes on demand--as should the sluggish U.S. economy. Economists point out that estimates of a 500,000-barrel-a-day worldwide shortfall do not take into account that rising prices will weaken demand.
What compounded the gas shortages of the 1970s were now-defunct government regulations that dictated prices and supply, economists say. "It is very hard to see how we can have a shortage of oil in a free market," said Philip Verleger, visiting fellow at the Institute of International Economics in Washington.
But a free market could mean a sharp and painful rise in fuel prices, especially for users of home heating oil in the Northeast and Midwest. "That really impacts the poor and the elderly," Winters said. "You do have to heat homes in the wintertime."
But while industry officials are confident about oil supplies, they are less certain about human behavior. Panic buying and hoarding are triggered when consumers are focused more on their self-interest than on the common good, said Richard Feinberg, professor of consumer science and retailing at Purdue University.
"It is just simply a consumer perception that they themselves are better off by hoarding than not," Feinberg said. "You are immediately rewarded for it but sacrifice long-term benefits. You have what you need."
In contrast, those focused on the common good "give up (immediate) rewards for long-term benefits," Feinberg said. "That's harder to do."
Media reports, spot shortages and signs of hoarding by neighbors can all lead to widespread panic.
Some oil companies saw signs as early as last month that motorists were beginning to buy more gasoline than normal, though demand seems to have eased a bit.
"We probably saw some topping-off activity here in August," said Arco's Johnson. "Demands were considerably higher than they were a year ago. That is not necessary."
Under the worst-case scenario, if all motorists and industrial users began topping off their tanks every day, the nation would need 20% more oil over the course of a year, according to Dale W. Steffes of Planning & Forecasting Consultants in Houston.
Lower oil inventories "will not make as much a difference as the psychology of the consumer" when it comes to generating shortages, Steffes said. "If everyone started to fill that inventory, we would have an instant shortage. There is not enough crude to do it."
"There are hundreds of millions of cars out there, and (topping off) does make an impact on the flow of supply," said Haley at Chevron. "I'd hate to get an alarmist attitude. I don't think it's called for."
With fuel accounting for less than 4% of an average household budget, economist Jason D. Bram at the Conference Board, a business research organization in New York, does not see much of a financial incentive for the typical consumer to hoard--even if prices continue to climb. "It doesn't make it worthwhile to go to the trouble," he said.