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Japanese scurrying to get out of oil

By Geoffrey MurraySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 1980


Japan's "economic miracle" expansion in the 1960s was built on cheap, readily available oil. Its continued economic well-being is now based on getting out of oil as fast as possible.

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In the next decade, the government alone will spend an estimated $13 billion on research into coal, solar, and geothermal energy; on power generated by wind, waves, and ocean temperatures; and on synthetic fuels and hydrogen.

Many of these alternative energy sources are scheduled to come on stream in the 1990s, the gap being bridged by rapid expansion of coal, liquefied natural gas (LNG), and nuclear- generated power.

But interviews with a number of energy experts show widespread skepticism that, in view of Japan's antinuclear movement and environmental problems hampering coal and geothermal development, the government's targets are far too optimistic.

Japan's flirtation with oil was a brief but passionate romance. Less than 20 years ago coal, charcoal, and wood were still the country's main energy sources.

At the start of the 1960s, however, the government decided to base its industrial expansion policy on imported oil, becoming in time the world's biggest importer of crude and second (after the United States) overall energy consumer.

The 1973 "oil shock" panicked many Japanese into believing the country faced economic disaster. It didn't happen, and there is a consensus today that energy constraints are unlikely to put a direct brake on econoic growth. Yet, dependence on oil (99 percent imported) is still seen as a grave economic and strategic weakness.

Imported oil last year cost Japan $40 billion. this year it will rise to $67 billion, about half the nation's total import bill. At the Venice summit meeting of industrialized nations last July, Japan pledged not to increase its oil imports after 1985 and to increase its nonoil-derived energy from the present level of the equivalent of 1.7 million barrels of oil to 5 million barrels.

Size of Japan's two oil shocks, 1973-1974, 1979-present 1973 1974 1979 1980 Oil import bill (in US dollars) 6,000 18,898 33,471 55,450 Percentage change 52.8 215.0 42.8 66 Oil imports prices (in US dollars) 31.4 227.8 37.5 75

Oil self-denial is slowly developing into a national creed. The electric utility industry's supply-and-demand committee has set a target of reducing oil's share of power output from the current 57 percent to approximately 40 percent in 1985, 20 percent in 1990, and only 10 percent by the middle of that decade.

Meanwhile, the government hopes that development of alternatives will cut oil's share of total energy needs from the present 75 percent to 63 percent in 1985, 50 percent in 1990, and 43 percent five years later.

But achieving that target depends in large part on the success of still-untried technology.

A proliferation of private and public committees as well as a wide range of commercial interests is involved in the alternative-energy program. One of the biggest problems in the next few years will be harnessing these into a coherent national energy policy.

A new government organization charged with this task will begin operation in October.

The most immediate concern is steaming coal. When the smell of cheap oil proved so alluring, the Tokyo government took the highly unpopular step of phasing out the domestic coal mining industry.