Pipeline diplomacy

Should the United States press its allies to cancel or slow construction of the 2,800-mile natural gas pipeline from Siberia to Western Europe? Some voices within the administration are urging President Reagan to do just that in response to the Polish crisis. If there may be a certain appeal in ''acting tough,'' we trust the President resists such advice and heeds instead his secretary of state. Mr. Haig is unwilling to risk damaging Western unity in the face of the Polish crackdown.

It would be ironic indeed if, in its effort to pressure Moscow by means of economic sanctions, Washington ended up dividing the Atlantic alliance, which was under strain even before the Polish military takeover. That would be handing a victory to the Soviet leadership, whose goal has been to drive a wedge between the US and its West European partners. Inasmuch as the Western alliance remains the paramount bulwark to Soviet expansion, preserving that collective unity should remain the objective of US diplomacy.

The West Europeans are understandably critical of the more extreme American attitudes. The Yamal pipeline was under attack by hard-liners in the US government even before the events in Poland and Europeans now see them using Poland as an excuse to scuttle the project. Moreover, they resent the US administration asking a hard-pressed Europe to forgo the jobs and industrial exports which the pipeline represents while it is unwilling to deprive American farmers of profitable grain sales to the Soviet Union. Such logic is hard to counter. If Washington wants strong sanctions on Moscow, it should be willing to share equitably the burden of losses in lucrative business deals. It has, to be sure, cut off the supply of some US-built pipeline machinery but that is far less than European industry would lose if the deal were scrapped.

Washington's concern is that Western Europe will grow too dependent on the Soviet Union for a key energy resource. There is a definite risk here and it has not hurt to have alarms sounded about it. But whether the risk is intolerable is open to question. By 1990 West Germany would be getting 25 percent of its natural gas from the USSR, compared with 17 percent today. French dependence would grow from 15 to 26 percent, Italy's from 15 to 35 percent, and Western Europe's as a whole from about 9 to 25 percent. However, Soviet supplies would still account for only 5 or 6 percent of the three countries' total energy needs by 1990. Hence a Soviet cutoff, while damaging, would not be devastating.

Furthermore, the West Europeans are taking prudent steps to avoid vulnerability to blackmail. West Germany is arranging emergency supplies, France plans a strategic stockpile of Algerian gas, and Italy also has built a new pipeline to obtain Algerian gas. Needless to say, these and other efforts to diversify sources should be vigorously pursued. At the same time, it is well to remember that construction of the pipeline will enable Western Europe to reduce its overwhelming dependence on Middle East supplies -- a dependence no less worrisome given the volatile situation in the region.

Some other arguments on behalf of the gigantic Yamal project also can be cited. Moscow perhaps would find it tempting in some circumstances to curtail gas supplies for purposes of political leverage. But it would do so at considerable harm to its own economy. Exports of Siberian gas are expected to earn up to $6 billion a year in hard currency, something the Soviet Union needs more than Europe needs gas. There will be, in other words, a mutual gain and a mutual dependence.

This is not to deny that the Polish crisis prompts a reassessment of East-West trade and of the extent to which the West should finance the Soviet bloc's economic development. Clearly Western bankers acted irresponsibly in letting the communist nations build up such massive debts. How to get out of this financial morass is now a terrible problem for Western governments as well as bankers. Certainly the most stringent fiscal standards ought to be applied to any future commercial transactions.

But we see little point in the US trying to block a project which the West Europeans are determined to go through with, which makes economic sense, and which does not entail undue risks. Secretary Haig is right in not wanting to press the issue. The US Chamber of Commerce, we might note, agrees.

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