Energy's new terrain

They laughed when President Carter said that America's energy challenge was the moral equivalent of war and nobody saluted. But in the three troubled years since that other April the country has straggled forward. This month the signing of the windfall oil profits bill, for all its flaws, provided a landmark in a strikingly improved terrain for energy progress. It is not too much to say what a recent veteran of the energy campaign inside government has said -- that the conditions and ability are being established for Americans to "recapture control of their destiny."

To fulfill this promise will require unshirking follow-through on initiatives such as the ones described below, particularly those for the energy efficiency that remains America's greatest immediate additional resource. But the present fact is that Americans and their government at last appear to be listening to what their President said about the energy crisis in 1977: "By acting now we can control our future instead of letting the future control us."

This is not to pretend that the energy picture itself is rosy, despite current world supplies exceeding demand. Last year's aggravation of the price and supply problem brought sudden change that might have been expected more gradually over a considerably longer period. The editors of the celebrated Harvard Business School energy study now see an energy emergency persisting throughout the 1980s.

What places Americans in an improved position to cope with the emergency is a combination of changing attitudes and changing institutional means.

There is a growing state of mind that sees the role of energy not only in terms of individual use and industrial profit but in terms of a national interest and security threatened by dependence on foreign oil. There is a growing "conservation ethic" countering energy waste not only because it is unjust in an interrelated world.

At the same time government has been taking the often controversial steps to enhance the institutional climate for energy production and energy efficiency. The phased decontrol of oil prices, the deregulation of natural gas prices over a longer period -- these measures promise increased production not only through higher profits but through a reduction of the complexity of doing business which some have claimed to be a deterrent. The higher prices also spur energy efficiency, though debate continues on whether this aim could be more fairly achieved through increases in taxes rather than increases to the companies.

Mr. Carter sought to divert the outcry against the oil companies' anticipated trillion extra dollars under control by calling for the windfall profits tax. The bill finally came through festooned with tax breaks that have nothing to do with energy. It contained congressional guidelines for what to do with the windfall tax proceeds -- including an allocation of more than half for income tax relief -- but not an assured system for using them wisely to serve the needs of energy and those most hurt by the higher prices. And it made provision for eventually phasing out the tax, though the President had originally wanted it to be indefinite.

But a tax did pass, and immediately an oil industry spokesman said it would result in a lost opportunity to increase US oil production by 1.7 million barrels a day by the mid-1980s. Ironically, at the same time, consumer advocates labelled the tax a sham and called for controls and rationing as a more equitable way of meeting energy needs while reducing incentives to overseas producers to keep raising prices. The Harvard people argue, on the other hand, that if there had been decontrol earlier, the world supply-and-demand situation would have been such that oil prices would be lower now.

Obviously citizens and their representatives still have a lot of decisionmaking to do as well as action to carry out in line with programs already passed.

Suggestions persist for some kind of national energy importing board to deal with overseas producers, for treating oil refineries like public utilities with requirements for disclosure and authorizations. While such developments are worth scrutiny, and will certinly receive it if the oil companies fail to convince the public of their responsibility under decontrol, there are more likely steps to be considered at the moment.

For example, consistent with environmental protection, the question of access to public lands and waters for mineral exploration and development needs to be addressed. The shift to more use of abundant coal should be facilitated through improved technology and government incentives, though it should be recognized that coal tends to be more a replacement for nuclear energy than for oil. The support for development of alternative renewable fuels needs to be increased.

Still tied up in Congress are Mr. Carter's corporation for developing synthethic fuels and his energy mobilization board to cut red tape on essential energy projects. There is sufficient doubt about the efficacy of these additions to bureaucracy to suggest no great loss if they should be stymied. Yet the essence of their aims, to find usable synethics and speed energy projects, should be maintained.

While the thrust proceeds on such fronts, it should be remembered that conservation buys more energy "production" more cheaply and quickly than anything else at the moment. It is not what has been called unproductivem conservation that is wanted -- the reduction in energy use from the closing of plants, etc., that comes with recession. It is productivem conservation that should be fostered, with the public gaining more from every tax subsidy buck. This means energy efficiency such as that spurred by automobile mileage standards, for example, and perhaps eventually by energy standards for buildings.

According to the Harvard Business School scholars, the supply side of things may force the United States to zero energy growth anyway during the '80s. But zero energy growth is something to be sought for itself, so long as it is the product of energy efficiency which does not mean an end to economic growth but rather its enhancement. Major US companies have shown dramatic decreases in energy use while expanding their business. Energy audits show how homes and every other kind of establishment can realize savings, too.

Here is a place where institutional change has lagged. The windfall tax bill does increase the tax credit for residential alternative-energy equipment to 40 percent of the first $10,000. But there ought to be increased incentives for insulation and other energy efficiency measures, not only for individuals but for the institutions such as utilities that can assist them.

It will take the kind of ingenuity for which Americans are famous. We close with an example that combines the rcognition of the need for conservation with recognition of the need for conservation with recognition of the doubts citizens feel when they come to decide what to do. Whom can they rely on to recommend the right thing? How can they avoid getting gypped?

New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley came up with a plan that challenges Americans to see whether they really have changed their minds enough to do something about energy. It would aks the government to pay private contractors for insulating houses; the contractor would be paid not for what it soct him but for the results -- the energy saved. His incentive would be to do the best job for the least money. Then the government would charge the utilities in the area for the aggregate amount of energy that had been saved. The charge passed on to customers would be expected to be less than the charge for increased use of fuel or building of plants to meet increased needs without conservation.

Yes, there might be sales-resistance from some quarters. But Americans cannot afford notm to think about all alternatives if they are indeed to act so "we can control our future instead of letting the future control us."

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