Toward an Energy Plan

THE Gulf crisis and the resulting leap in oil prices have revived attention in the United States on the neglected need for a long-range energy policy. Chief components should be energy conservation and development of alternative, clean energy sources. For the sake of its energy security the US simply must lessen its dependence on oil imports (which in July surpassed 50 percent of American oil consumption), and for the sake of the environment the nation must put itself on a fossil-fuels diet.

The conservation steps outlined last week by Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins, such as making sure tires are properly inflated, can have an impact if enough American families respond. The DOE hopes that through such measures, paired with efforts to boost domestic oil production, the oil shortfall caused by the Gulf conflict can be offset.

Conservation, however, should be a national habit, not just a short-term palliative. The time is still distant when Americans won't consume rivers of oil. Drivers have strayed far from the slower speeds and fuel-economy awareness of the late '70s. Carmakers, sensing this, have plunged happily back into bigger, more powerful cars. The vehicles are more fuel efficient than their guzzling predecessors, but market and governmental pressures for more miles per gallon have receded. They're now returning, thanks both to Iraq's actions and rising US fuel taxes.

But the difficult process of steering the nation away from oil depends on a clear, long-term energy roadmap. That plan should emphasize increased production of synthetic fuels and wider use of renewable sources like solar.

As a temporary necessity, it would also include efforts to increase domestic oil production in order to ease the reliance on foreign supplies. And here the environmental trade-offs have to be carefully weighed, since the largest untapped reserves are in areas that Congress has put off limits: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northern Alaska and the ocean shelf, especially off California.

With the price of a barrel of oil hovering around $25 on the world market, incentives to pump more out of already developed fields are strengthened. Increased domestic production poses environmental risks, but so does continued importing of ever greater amounts of oil into the US in foreign (and often poorly regulated) tankers.

Above all, Americans must respond to the nudge they're getting from the gulf crisis and put energy back where it belongs on the national agenda - right near the top.

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