Energy officials message to fuel-saving public: 'Keep it up, America'

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Do Americans deserve a pat on the back for their energy-saving efforts or don't they? The answer from the US Department of Energy (DOE) is a conditional: "Yes, but only if they keep it up."

"There is still a need to conserve energy -- and particularly to cut back on gasoline use," says Philip Garon, a DOE spokesman. "Even though crude oil and gas stocks are up, it's not as if we can go back to 'business as usual.' The situation is still fragile, and political instability in the Middle East leaves much of the world's oil supply extremely vulnerable to cutoffs."

In general terms, by the DOE's verdict, Americans as energy savers are doing fairly well. Total petroleum use -- for everything from jet engines to heating oil -- is down 8 percent for the first two-thirds of this year compared with the same period in 1979.

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For drivers the record is somewhat more mixed. Last December President Carter urged Americans to use no more than 7 million barrels of gasoline a day in their cars. They have been using less than that total for much of this year but lately have been hovering right at the limit, according to Mr. Garon. Indeed, gasoline use is up 4.9 percent in the first two-thirds of this year compared with the same period last year.

"It has picked up this summer more than it did in the spring," Mr. Garon says.

What of the effectiveness of the Carter- ordered freeze on building thermostats at 78 degrees F. in summer and 65 in winter?

By DOE estimates, based on a sampling of the 2.8 million buildings eligible for the order, some 80 percent are in compliance. The resulting saving is 200, 000-400,000 barrels of oil a day -- or "no small saving," says Mr. Garon, who reports that his federal office is registering a muggy 85 degrees. "To me 78 degrees right about now would be like paradise." The experimental program, which drew most of the consumer complaints it triggered right in the first month or two, was recently extended for nine months and will expire in December unless the President decides to renew it.

As proof that the DOE stands eager to keep Americans from too many self-congratulations, lest they fall down on conservation, the federal agency has a public-service advertising campaign under way built around a "Keep It Up America" theme.

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