BACK in the fall, when the Gulf crisis was generating renewed concern about US reliance on imported oil, Energy Secretary James Watkins put forward a plan for conserving fuel that highlighted properly inflated auto tires and car-pooling. Many people said such steps are fine, but are Band-Aids. When, they asked, was the country going to have a real energy policy for the 21st century? Last week the White House released its energy plan - to an immediate chorus of critical voices. The response is skeptical for good reason. It isn't that conservation measures don't go far enough in the administration's new proposal, but that conservation itself is virtually missing from the plan. It's clear that in the intramural White House contest between those who want to conserve the fuel we have and those who want to pull out all stops to produce more, the latter have triumphed. But the game is just beginning. As Congress puts its own touches on an energy policy, the considerable arguments against drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge or off the shores of California and the Carolinas will be amply aired. Those areas are estimated by the government to hold about 6.1 billion barrels, not enough - even if it materializes - to have much impact on the nation's demand for imported oil, given the time needed to develop the fields and the likely high price of this oil versus crude from the Middle East. Meanwhile, drilling would heighten the danger of oil spills, pollute water, and destroy wildlife habitat. On the other hand, hiking the gasoline mileage requirement for new automobiles could save 8 billion to 9 billion barrels of oil by the end of the decade, according to figures put out by the Natural Resources Defense Council. That could help reduce Americans' demand for overseas oil. Proponents of this approach urge an average fuel economy of 40 miles per gallon of gasoline, to be reached, progressively, by the year 2001. The current standard is 27.5 m.p.g., and carmakers argue that forcing the standard higher could be economically ruinous and perhaps technologically unfeasible. Cars already exist, however, that meet or surpass the 40 m.p.g. standard, and it's doubtful that even the current much-improved fuel efficiencies would have been attained if the industry's economic arguments had been allowed to carry the day. Another potential big saver of energy is mass transit, but it's on the short end of both the proposed energy policy and the president's plan to spend $105.4 billion on national transportation needs over the next five years. No one can credibly argue that the development of more efficient automobiles and better transit systems will not be expensive, or that these advances don't hinge on big changes in Americans' buying and traveling habits. But the costs of putting off these steps, and frantically probing the ground for more oil, whatever the environmental bill, could be higher. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/91/mar/week10/efuel.