How to save gasoline -- and a nation's security

Study after study has underscored the importance of energy conservation as one of the most practical and immediate steps available to Americans for decreasing their dependence on foreign oil. Americans have, in fact, made some noteworthy initial efforts toward improving their energy efficiency. But President Carter has run into a stone wall in Congress with his attempts to further encourage fuel conservation by imposition of an oil import fee that would add 10 cents a gallon to the price consumers pay for gasoline.

A panel of experts at Harvard University has issued a new report hitting the conservation theme, this time stressing excessive gasoline use in particular and warning that a reduction of up to 20 percent in US gas consumption is needed to ensure national security. The study, entitled "The Dependence Dilemma: Gasoline Consumption and America's Security," sees oil supplies dwindling in the 1980s and cautions that current emergency rationing plans are "an administrative monstrosity" which leave the US "woefully unprepared for a supply interruption."

But if Congress is reluctant to pass along a 10-cent-a-gallon price hike, it is even less likely to buy the alternative solution put forward in this newest report. The Harvard scholars recommend an additional gas tax of between 30 and 50 cents a gallon with a rebate going directly to the consumers. They argue that this would leave most consumers no worse off in terms of overall income, but the relative price of gasoline would be higher. Such a tax, the authors note, would bring the US level of taxation up to about one-third of that in Western Europe.

The study sees a gas tax as simpler and more efficient than gas rationing. It also takes proper note of other conservation measures open to Americans -- for instance, the need for greater flexibility in how they use their cars (better trip planning and car maintenance), more emphasis on alternatives to single-passenger auto trips (employer vanpooling), and acceptance of a 40 -mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency standard in the 1985-95 period.

Although most experts emphasize the importance of conservation, the current hassle in Congress over budget authorizations for the coming fiscal year indicates the difficulty of getting inducements through Congress. Overall energy allocations were cut drastically in the 1981 budget resolution the House rejected and sent back to conference for further consideration. And in the Energy Department's tentative outline of spending priorities for the 1982-86 fiscal years, Energy Secretary Duncan has trimmed funds for conservation and cut the solar budget, prompting solar lobbyists to charge that it is highly unlikely the administration could reach its goal of solar providing 20 percent of the nation's total energy needs by the year 2000. Of course, time still remains in the long and complicated process of settling on a federal budget, and there will be plenty of opportunities in the weeks ahead for funds for conservation and alternatives to fossil fuels to be restored.

Congress and the experts may not agree on how best to encourage conservation, but everyone agrees fuel savings are a must. Americans, meanwhile, need not wait for Washington to provide the initiative. Many already are demonstrating a new proficiency in energy efficiency.

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