Energy saving still matters

DRIVERS whose cars run on regular gasoline have already begun to notice something new at the filling station: When they tank up, the gallons dial on the pump rolls around faster than the dollars dial. Those who fill up with unleaded may be seeing the same thing soon. But the temporary slide of gasoline prices below $1 per gallon does not mean the United States has no more energy worries. The debate among experts is not whether, but when, the oil prices will head back up. The need for a national energy policy is as important as ever.

The high prices of recent years have inspired further energy exploration, and discoveries have been made in areas where production was not cost-effective until oil prices reached a certain point. In that sense, yes, there is more oil available than there used to be.

But no one is seriously claiming oil to be a renewable resource. We are using the stuff up. The main reason for the current glut is that the Saudi Arabians, having concluded that they could not prop up the price of oil by limiting production, have opened the spigot all the way to make up on volume for what they had given up in profit margin. If anything, the current glut means the day of reckoning will come sooner rather than later.

Fortunately, the United States has developed some good energy-saving habits over the past several years, especially within industry. These habits are likely to remain, although there is concern that consumers will renew their love affair with gas-guzzling hugemobiles.

The oil glut also hurts the domestic oil industry, since US oil reserves tend to be uneconomic to produce when oil prices fall too low. US energy independence will never be total, but holding imports to a minimum is a goal worth striving for.

Soft oil prices have also taken the steam out of efforts to move along the alternative energy path; programs like solar energy still merit encouragement. A lot of basic energy research and development has been shelved -- inappropriately, given that the long-term energy picture hasn't really changed.

Finally, the oil glut has provided another excuse to delay developing a real consensus on coal and nuclear energy.

Lack of perceived ``crisis'' seems to mean lack of action. But Washington needs to hold to the longer view on energy so that serious policy questions can be confronted.

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