Oil and -- optimism?

The optimism just expressed by Energy Secretary Duncan has to be hedged about with the warnings being heard elsewhere. But the American people can take some satisfaction in achieving the degree of energy efficiency cited by Secretary Duncan as a reason for declining imports of oil. And the Carter administration can take some satisfaction in what it calls, after the recent signing of synthetic fuels legislation, a virtually completed "framework for a national energy policy."

A framework does not a policy make, as President Ford found after all the energy legislation passed under his administration brought him scant credit. The administration's energy array will need focus to emerge as policy in the midst of continuing controversy over such questions as the proportions of emphasis to be placed on oil, gas, coal, nuclear, solar, and other sources.

But something has been started. The President got his Department of Energy, an expensive and sometimes dubious blessing, which symbolizes the importance that has to be placed on energy now that the cheap years are over. He got momentum toward decontrol of oil and natural gas prices -- along with a version of his windfall profits tax and the aid for such needs as low-income households and mass transit which it is supposed to provide. With the synfuels bill he got what businessmen call at least a good first step toward establishing a synthetic fuels industry, though concerns remain about added bureaucracy, environmental hazards, and pork-barreling.

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Some final parts of the package have been help up by Congress in its wisdom. Mr. Carter's Energy Mobilization Board -- with its promise of cutting red tape and threat of undermining federal law and states' rights -- seems stymied for the moment. The Senate has passed a measure to spped the conversion of utilities from oil to coal through grants and loans -- with incentives for environmental protection short of the defeated rules to make plants under mandated conversion meet the clean-air standards of new plants. But he bill is stalled in a House subcommittee where a majority is said to oppose the legislation, including Republicans who, according to a minority counsel, "are getting tired of corporate welfare." Certainly the whole matter of how to square decontrolled prices with subsidized production will be a test of just United States energy policy should be.

For all the back-and-forthing, somebody must be doing something right. Secretary Duncan noted on the weekend that US imposrts of crude oil had dropped 25 percent in the month of June. He had hopes that the 1980 average would be seven million barrels a day, in contrast with 8.5 million barrels in 1977. He acknowledged the role of recession and rising prices in cutting down imports. But he stressed such other factors as home insulation, more efficient cars, and ways of attaining economic growth without comparable energy growth.

Mr. Duncan said US energy consumption had declined last year, which returns us to our continuing daytime serial that might be called "Did We or Didn't We?" Last spring we hailed Energy Department figures showing a slight decline in US energy use between 1978 and 1979, the first in a quarter century in a year without recession. Then revised department figures showed a tiny increase. Perhaps Mr. Duncan is using the comparative world figures that have just arrived in British Petroleum's annual survey. They find the US one of the few countries to have consumed less primary energy (oil, gas, coal, water power, nuclear) in 1979 than in 1978 -- down from the equivalent of 1.904 billion metric tons of oil to 1,898 billion. The drop in oil use alone was more than 25 million tons or 2.9 percent. To be sure, the US still uses more than any other country -- indeed, more than all of Western Europe. But only five others came down at all.

So Americans are going in the right direction, proving that they can reduce the glaring disproportion between their drain on world resources and that of other countries. But it has to be noted that US production of crude oil also fell (by 2 percent) while US consumption was decreasing. No one in the business seems to think that US production can do much more than hold its own -- or decline more slowly than otherwise -- with all the decontrolled prices and other incentives in the world.

Which brings us to one of the warnings being heard these days. It is from an energy panel convened by the Aspen Institute. It declares that US security is seriously threatened by insufficient preparation for the possibility of a sudden foreign oil shut-off. It calls for filling the strategic reserve and being ready to switch quickly to other fuels.

Optimism, yes, Mr. Duncan. But the way to fulfill and maintain it is to continue fleshing out that "framwork" of an energy policy.

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