A harsh hint to save oil

Can Americans take a hint? They and other oil importers are being offered a harsh one by the fighting between the oil-producing states of Iran and Iraq. It is a word to the wise for reducing dependence on oil from an unstable region where such conflicts are seen as perennial possibilities.

We are reminded of how much individuals can do, as represented by readers of this newspaper like the Mathewses of New Providence, N.J., and the Gollobitzes of St. Louis. The Mathewses took such steps as insulating the attic and burning "about three cords of wood a year" to bring their oil consumption down from more than 2,000 gallons in 1971-72 to less than 600 in 1978-79. The Gollobitzes car-pooled to work in separate places and saved gasoline worth $20 a week -- in 1979 prices!

These were among energy savers who responded to International Energy Conservation Month just a year ago with letters about ways they were using energy more efficiently. From all accounts their number has increased. The Department of Energy reports that total petroleum use for the first two-thirds of 1980 was down 8 percent from last year. This no doubt reflects some effects of recession but also the substantial record of industry in cutting growth of energy use without cutting growth itself. Even the much-mocked administration freeze on thermostat settings has saved 200,000-400,000 barrels of oil a day -- ten times as much as the US has been importing from the now embroiled Iraq.

But current achievements in efficient energy use and domestic energy production must be expanded on to diminish vulnerability to events abroad. "Keep it up, America," as the Energy Department says in its campaign to encourage Americans not to slip backward in conservation efforts. Despite recession, gasoline use was up in the first two-thirds of this year by 4.9 percent over 1979.

On the energy production side, a high turnout of voters in Maine this week told the nation something. In America's first referendum on whether to shut down an operating nuclear power plant, the vote was 3-2 against the shutdown. The outcome seemed to indicate a willingness to accept safety risks for reasons of economy and a non-oil energy source until alternatives are readily available. The president of the Central Maine Power Company said: "We look upon this as a vote of confidence in the Maine Yankee plant, but we do not look at it in any way as a mandate to build future plants." This comment fits in with expert opinion that America is unlikely to build more nuclear fission plants than are now at some stage in the pipeline.

For the longer term, a major new push is being made toward harnessing the enormous power in hydrogen fusion. And other sources of energy, from garbage to pelletized wood to "synfuels," are being pursued as alternatives to oil, while strenuous efforts proceed to limit projected declines in domestic production.

Whatever the results in production, the efficient use of what is produced remains a prime source of savings that are a form of production in themselves. We trust the Mathewses and Gollobitzes are keeping it up, along with a growing legion of American energy savers.

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