President Carter, while urging Americans to "make 1980 a year of energy conservation," has shied away from the tough steps that might force a real drop in the use of oil.
This is evident on two scores:
* The President, yielding to the advice of political adviser Stuart E. Eizenstat and others, refused to impose a tax on gasoline that might have driven the cost to $2 a gallon by the end of the year.
"Without [such] a tax," said a highly placed administration official, "you are giving the same amount of money to OPEC, instead of keeping it here."
* Mr. Carter set an oil import ceiling so high -- 8.2 million barrels a day -- that it will cause Americans little or no difficulty.
Last year, for example, the US imported only 7.7 million barrels a day, according to the Department of Energy. With consumption now dropping, this year's import total should be even lower.
The 1980 import ceiling, the President says, "will be enforced by an oil import fee if necessary." All foreign oil above 8.2 million barrels daily, in other words, would be subject to a stiff per barrel fee.
"This," says a senior administration official, "would simply be another form of gasoline tax. Administratively, you could direct the import fee wholly on gasoline."
Politically, however, the fee runs into the same argument which scuttled the gasoline tax: that poor Americans, reliant on cars to get to and from work, would be hard hit.
Using this argument, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts called Monday for immediate gasoline rationing, designed -- in his words -- to save 1.7 million barrels of oil daily over a three-year period.
Rationing, Senator Kennedy said, should be based on drivers' licenses not, as in the Carter administration's standby rationing plan, on car registrations.
Vehicle registration, according to critics, favors the well- to-do, who may own more than one car. Each licensed driver in a family, under the Kennedy scheme, would receive gas coupons, which could be used to buy gasoline or be sold in a "white market."
White House aides generally oppose rationing, except in emergencies, because of the complexity of allocating coupons to various categories of users -- farmers, doctors, businesses, and ordinary drivers.
President Carter's energy policy calls for removing the government progressively from regulation of the petroleum market, rather than adding a new bureaucratic layer through rationing.
Advocates of a stiff tax on gasoline, agreeing that lower- income Americans must be protected, say this could best be done by lowering other taxes equivalently.
Mr. Carter's threat to use a fee to limit oil imports will not have to be used, top administration officials say they believe, because the US is expected to import much less oil than the President's 8.2 million barrel ceiling.
Setting so high a ceiling in part was tactical -- to give the US room to lower its import goal, if other industrial powers, grouped with the United States in the International Energy Agency (IEA), will do the same.
In March, the 20-member IEA meets in Paris to set national import quotas for 1980.
As to conservation already achieved by Americans, reports the American Petroleum Institute (API), gasoline consumption last year was down 5.1 percent compared with 1978. Heating oil use dropped 2.6 percent.
In closing months of 1979, gasoline use dropped even more sharply. Americans now burn 7 to 10 percent less car fuel than they did a year ago.
Following record imports of nearly 8.6 million barrels of oil daily in 1977, US imports dropped in 1978 to a bit less than 7.9 million barrels, and to an estimated 7.7 million barrels a day last year.
Over the past decade, there has been a notable shift in the source of foreign oil bought by the United States. In 1970, according to the API, 71 percent of imported oil came from Canada and Venezuela. Now 60 percent of US oil imports come from four other nations -- Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Libya, and Algeria.