Where's energy crisis? Oil 'glut' puts it on back burner

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Whatever happened to the energy crisis? Just two summers ago, long gasoline lines provoked a crisis of impatience with the Carter administration.

President Carter hurried home from Japan and holed up at Camp David to consult with advisers. Emerging, he blamed the nation's mood on "malaise." To bolster confidence in the White House, he announced a new energy policy, capped by a $20 billion synthetic fuels program.

Energy had become the measure of Carter's competence. In August 1979, 60 percent of the public rated energy a serious worry. By Labor Day, Republican Ronald Reagan was running ahead of Carter in presidential trial heats, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts was leading Carter for the Democratic nomination.

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Today, the public expresses less confidence in Mr. Reagan's ability to handle energy problems than most of the other challenges he confronts, according to Gallup and other surveys -- but it doesn't seem to matter.

Today energy has suffered a comedown as a political issue and public concern.

"It's viewed as a long-range problem now, not as a short-range crisis," says opinion analyst Burns Roper.

The public has gotten used to higher prices. Gasoline station supplies are ample. "Glut" has replaced shortage in talk on the world oil scene. "Demand has collapsed, primarily in response to price," says Steve Smith, energy analyst for Data Resources Inc.

Since August 1979, the 60 percent who thought energy a serious worry has been cut by more than half, says Ruth Clark, opinion expert with Yankelovich, Skelly & White. Public concern about cost has blended into their more general thoughts about inflation. "Also," Ruth Clark says, "there's been no problem with gasoline. . . ."

Americans have been doing better on gasoline use since the summer of 1979. Then, they were using nearly 7.2 million barrels per day. That has been cut to 6.9 million barrels this summer, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

The energy issue has bobbed around as a public issue since the 1973 Arab oil embargo. By the Roper Organization's scale, public concern over energy hit a high of 46 percent after the embargo ended in 1974, dipped to 26 percent in 1976 , and stood at 30 percent earlier this year. Among public worries, Roper ranked the fuel and energy crisis fourth in its last reading, after the perennial leader "inflation and high prices" (56 percent), "crime and lawlessness" (35 percent), and "having enough money to live by" (31 percent).

Less hostility toward the US oil companies and a greater tolerance of their economic arguments is among the more significant shifts in public views.

Although the public still thinks recent oil price deregulation is "against the public interest" by 46 percent to 38 percent, the minority who favor it is "amazingly strong," Roper says.

The difference between summer 1981 and summer 1979 in terms of the energy issue shows up in Reagan's performance ratings. The President scored a 32 percent approval rating on his handling of energy matters this March. This was the lowest score of the seven categories Roper measures -- cutting federal spending, cutting taxes, setting the style and tone of government, ability to make government efficient, handling of the economy, foreign relations, and selecting aides and advisers.

But unless another interruption of gasoline supplies or home heating oil strikes, the energy issue appears likely to simmer at some distance from the Reagan Oval Office.

The Democrats -- who would like to make the tax bill, set for a presidential signature this week, into a future election issue -- tried to maneuver a separate last-minute vote on the House floor to strip the nearly $12 billion tax break for oil producers from the measure. The attempt was but one action in a broad plan to tar the Reagan administration with a pro-big oil, pro-business image.

Energy policy in Congress has been largely compressed into the budget-cutting battle, as a subwar between the administration and Capitol Hill Democrats. Congress gave Reagan more than he wanted to spend on conservation, solar, and other renewable resources, and fossil fuels, and cut a token $100 million from the administration's nuclear budget.

In general, the Reagan administration wants to "rely on market forces" even if another energy emergency strikes, says Energy Secretary James B. Edwards.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D) of Michigan, energy point man for the Democrats in the House, counters that the country faces a 3-out-of-10 chance of another energy shutoff (the record of the last 10 years). In another emergency, Reagan would have to act, Congressman Dingell argues. He sees two political issues set for exploitation or testing by the Democrats: earnings gains for oil companies of 130 percent a year until last year, and the decontrol of gas, which he says "will occur over my dead body."

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is feeling comfortable with the Reagan administration. The Reagan energy policy statement issued two weeks ago "generally favors a market approach, which we agree with," says API spokesman Earl Ross.

A shift away from instant suspicion of the oil industry was evident in recent weeks as the prospect of a merger between energy giants Conoco and Mobil (subsequently outbid by Du Pont) largely escaped public criticism.

From the industry's point of view, the major political issues ahead include revision of the Clean Air Act -- for which the administration has just issued its proposals four months after its target date. The industry also wants to get around land-use blockades -- so-called antiquities laws and endangered species rules -- to explore the Northwest's "overthrust belt" and Alaska wildlife regions. And it wants changes in the Natural Gas Policy Act to reduce the gap between oil and natural gas prices

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