How would Congress save oil?

That Congress turned thumbs down on President Carter's proposed 10 -cents-a-gallon tax increase on gasoline is hardly surprising. In an election year, at a time when Americans caught between recession and inflation are struggling to make ends meet, with social security about to take a bigger bite out of workers' pay checks, and with gasoline prices almost double what they were a year ago -- in the face of all this, it would take a rare kind of political courage for lawmakers to vote in a tax increase, even if they were convinced that Americans should be make to pay more for the fuel they still tend to waste.

Even avid supporters of Mr. Carter's oil import fee concede that the proposed the US is serious about energy conservation, is largely a symbolic gesture. The reduction in imports would be relatively small -- perhaps 2 percent. Higher oil prices and improved efficiency in energy use already have brought a 14 percent drop in imports over last year's level. Americans have shown that they can and will conserve.

Still, the US will spend $90 billion this year on imported oil, about $30 billion more than it spent last year for a greater amount of oil. The Carter administration points out that of the 7 million barrels of gasoline American motorists use each day, 2.5 million are used on unnecessary, optional driving. West Europeans, whose gas taxes on the average are five times higher than Americans', have long criticized such wasteful practices. Moreover, the International Energy Agency in Paris warns that dwindling world supplies will lead to a shortfall of oil by 1985; oil producers may not be able to meet the demands of the industrial nations.

President Carter is right to press for further measures to encourage conservation. Now that Congress has rejected a gasoline tax, it ought to come forward with its own proposals for reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. Rationing is one approach frequently discussed. However, recent studies argue that nationwide rationing would be more difficult to implement, would be less efficient than taxes, and would require creation of a large, new bureaucracy.

Mr. Carter has warned that if Congress overrides his veto of legislation barring him from imposing an import fee (as now seems likely) he has other alternatives available to him to assure further progress in conserving energy. Just what options he has in mind is not clear. One possibility is that he could use the stand-by emergency authority Congress granted the President in 1973 to lower import targets if he considers it in the "national interest" to do so. However, if that would lead to price hikes at the gas pump, he might encounter congressional opposition once again.

In any case, it is incumbent upon both Congress and the White House to spell out alternatives for encouraging further conservation. Americans, meanwhile, need not wait for government to provide the initiative but should increase individual efforts to find new ways of saving fuel.

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