Don't ax DOE and energy policy

The only bad thing about dismantling the Department of Energy would be any message that energy has become less important to Americans and their government. Such a message can be avoided through policies equal to the challenge with or without a separate department. It is these policies that must be fashioned and fostered as Congress and the public consider this week's news about administration intentions to get rid of DOE and shift its remaining functions elsewhere.

Congress might well have expected the President to wait for the ''sunset'' review of energy programs called for by law and due to be presented in January. The appearance now is that decisions have been taken without the full scrutiny to determine whether programs should be retained, eliminated, or modified. And Congress will want to be assured that responsible decisions are made before it goes along with administration dismantling plans as reported this week.

A congressional hearing yesterday gave some hint that Mr. Reagan cannot expect rubber-stamping on energy. The question in this instance was whether taxpayers should be expected to foot the bill for an elaborate DOE program to promote nuclear power - especially when the department is cutting down information services in general, such as those for the elderly.

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Larger questions are sure to arise as Mr. Reagan seeks congressional approval for his energy restructuring. Most of the jurisdiction, including nuclear weapons, is slated for the Department of Commerce rather than the Department of the Interior, which vainly lobbied for it. But beyond jurisdictional changes Congress will be - and ought to be - concerned about the changes in policy on the drawing board.

To take but one of these, the budget for 1983 is said to maintain support for nuclear power to the tune of $1.2 billion while slashing support for conservation and solar energy by some 90 percent from their 1981 levels. This means $22 million for conservation and $82 million for solar - less than a tenth , combined, of the nuclear level.

Without going into the current debate over nuclear's safety and economic troubles, some congressmen are sure to raise the issue of its minor contribution to reducing dependence on foreign oil. Nuclear power is used only for electricity, and only 7 percent of US oil use is accounted for by electricity anyway. Most oil goes to transportation and heating. Here is where conservation and alternative forms of energy, such as solar, can make a great difference.

Can the federal government afford to put so many of its eggs in the nuclear basket? Is the administration's devotion to free-market forces served by subsidizing one element in the marketplace to the virtual exclusion of others?

These are among the queries the administration is likely to encounter whether it operates through Energy, Commerce, or any other departmental framework.

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