Coalition out to save energy conservation from US budget ax

A coalition of consumer and environmental groups is thwarting the Reagan administration's plans to dismantle federal energy conservation programs. Unconvinced that the administration's solution for a boost in domestic energy production is the answer to energy problems, some Democratic and Republican congressmen have repeatedly rejected White House energy measures this fall.

Environmentalists contend the Reagan administration harbors a special animus toward government-supported energy conservation. In contrast to the Carter administration's conservation ethic, they say the Reagan philosophy hinges on higher prices to raise domestic energy production and stimulate enough conservation to reduce reliance on foreign oil.

The argument from the environmental groups is that this Reagan view is blind to signs pointing to a limited potential for nuclear power due to escalating costs, and for oil and gas due to finite reserves. They believe that unless the United States embarks on a concerted conservation drive, oil imports will continue to drain the economy, disrupt American foreign policy, and imperil world peace.

The White House is under fire for cutting government subsidies for conservation while maintaining federal support for nuclear power and other energy supply programs. When President Reagan first proposed to reduce the 1982 federal energy budget from $16.5 billion to $13.8 billion, the biggest cuts fell on the Department of Energy's (DOE) coal, conservation, and solar energy programs - while oil, gas, and nuclear subsidies escaped relatively unscathed. Conservation bore the brunt by facing cuts from $1 billion to $195.2 million, or from 6 percent to 1 percent of the energy budget.

Then in September, when President Reagan called for an additional 12 percent reduction in government spending, energy conservation saw cuts of $104 million.

Congress is now trying to reach a compromise with the White House in hopes of saving some conservation funds. The battle threatens to break out again next year, however, since the administration wants to trim the energy conservation budget to $35 million. It plans to do this by dismantling DOE and shifting most federal responsibilities to the states. Environmentalists claim that lumping programs into block grants, for which states would have to raise matching funds, will doom many conservation efforts. They are especially worried about financially strapped Northern states which are most in need of cutting energy bills.

One program already feeling the effects of the standoff between the administration and Congress is low-income weatherization. By the end of last year, the program was helping low-income Americans insulate at a rate of 400,000 homes per year. But the Reagan administration refuses to commit funds until the budget dispute is resolved, so the program is grinding to a halt in many states.

Another program environmental groups say is in jeopardy is the residential conservation service. This program was created to ensure that electric utilities provide homeowners with energy audits for $15 and lists of insulators and financiers. Despite the administration's disapproval for this kind of government intrusion into business, the program has proved popular in states where it is already in effect. In late October, the Republican-controlled Senate, in a 71 -to-17 vote, rejected a White House proposal to delete DOE enforcement funds for the service.

Although Congress appears determined to save energy conservation programs, the White House holds the upper hand in the way it regulates. And supply-side philosophy prevails at DOE, where policymakers are considering a proposal to set energy efficiency standards on appliances.

Consumer activists maintain that the government should move beyond its current efficiency testing and energy information labeling requirement. They say DOE should approve minimum efficiency standards as an inducement for energy savings. Many consumers, they point out, have little choice in the appliances they use. Apartment dwellers, for example, must rely on the cheapest, least energy efficient products usually supplied by landlords.

The appliance industry is split over the idea of standards on its products, with one major manufacturer, Carrier Corporation, in favor. Whirlpool Corporation is opposed. But at DOE, officials say that among their superiors, the only real debate is how best to defeat the idea without angering the environmentalists. Encouraged by the shift in policy under President Reagan, some industry lobbyists are pushing for an end to all appliance testing and labeling requirements.

Despite the setbacks, consumer activists say they may have the last word in this debate. The free market could indeed spur greater conservation, they suggest, though the impetus may not come from higher prices. Government test labs report a surge of inquiries about appliance energy efficiency from Japanese companies.

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