As a presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan pledge to take a firmer stand against the Soviet Union while establishing better relations with US allies in Europe. Those two goals are coming into stark conflict over Soviet plans to build a massive gas pipeline from Siberia to those same allies.
Top administration officials acknowledge there is little they can do to prevent West Germany and five other countries from going ahead with the $15 billion project that would markedly increase Western European dependence on Soviet energy supplies. But that will not prevent them from trying to lure the allies away from the project.
In coming weeks they will step up their diplomatic efforts while reexamining export policies that apply to US firms keenly interested in supplying equipment for the project.
The emphasis will be on assuring US friends in Europe of increasing supplies from the "coal renaissance" they say now is underway here, as well as a promise that" the US will reestablish itself as a reliable partner in the international nuclear energy arena." US officials also hope to convince the Europeans that oil not only will be more readily available than previously thought possible, but that oil is easier to ship and store than gas and less susceptible to supply interruptions.
US officials will hope to convince the Europeans that administration efforts to open up federal lands and offshore areas to oil exploration, together with the phased deregulation of natural gas prices here, "will increase the availability of oil as well as gas on the world market," as Deputy Energy Secretary W. Kenneth Davis puts it.
The gas project includes a 3,000-mile pipeline from major gas fields near the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia to West Germany. Five other countries -- France, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, and Belgium -- also would purchase gas from the Yamal project, scheduled to be completed by 1987-88.
"In most countries, dependence on Soviet gas would more than double," warns Assistant Secretary of State Robert D. Hormats. "Certain regions will be very heavily dependent. . .and might apply strong pressure on national governments to avoid actions which could result in an interruption." Officials fear that this would weaken the US political and strategic position.
Noting that the Soviet Union has interrupted energy supplies to Yugoslavia, Israel, and China, Mr. Hormats says, "It is not unreasonable to assume that the Soviets from time to time would see the dependence of Western Europe on Soviet gas as an Opportunity to try to obtain political and/or economic benefits." But he also notes that "key European leaders have viewed expanded East-West Commerce as a means for building political ties and moderating soviet behavior."
There is an ironic conflict between the keystone of Reagan's domestic energy policy -- free-market principles -- and foreign policy goals in Europe. The pipeline plan is a clear example of freewheeling energy deals.
The Soviet Union has the world's largest proven reserve of natural gas and relies increasingly on energy exports for its hard currency (63 percent last year). Western Europe not only needs the gas, but would like to provide much of the technology and equipment for the project to bolster its own economies.
US companies also would like a piece of the action, and recent government decisions illustrate an ambivalence. The White House recently approved the Caterpillar Tractor Company's sale of pipe-laying machines to the Soviet Union.
"The convergence of these two responsibilities . . . is nowhere more evident than in the debate surrounding Soviet energy development and the Yamal pipeline, " Commerce Undersecretary Lionel Olmer told a Senate subcommittee this week. US companies generally agree with government national security goals, but are less supportive of foreign policy controls, he said.
Critics like Sens. Henry Jackson (D) of Washington and William Cohen (R) of Maine wonder about the Reagan administration recently lifting the grain embargo on the USSR while asking European allies to curtail energy business with the Soviet Union. Allowing US firms to supply construction equipment for the pipeline project, they say, frees the Soviets to build up their defenses.
It would take a major expansion of port and rail facilities to greatly increase US coal shipments to Europe. There is growing opposition to mining more coal from environmentally sensitive areas, as well as to White House plans to reprocess radioactive materials and sell them abroad. Senator Cohen also notes strong antinuclear sentiment in Europe. Thus President Reagan is finding it difficult to be tough with the Soviet and friendly with Europeans at the same time.