The new oil crunch

Ample oil supplies. Falling prices. The great energy crisis of the 1970s at last over.

Right? Wrong.

And according to an increasing body of solid research it is now vital that Western political leaders take the initiative in challenging the complacency that has set in regarding energy use - and continuing dependency on imported oil - to avoid a repetition of the supply disruptions that almost brought the industrial world to its knees just a few years back.

It is more than coincidence that a number of reports have been issued this year warning the global community of the danger of new oil shortages that could lead to a plummeting of world economic activity in the late 1980s. First came the study by Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. Then, during the summer, came a new international study coedited by Harvard University's Daniel Yergin warning about the possibility of a third oil shock later in the decade which could be far more severe than the oil crunches of the 1970s. Finally, this past week, the International Energy Agency concluded that, unless nations do more to reduce dependence on imported oil, shortages of up to 4 million barrels a day by 1990 could depress world economic activity.

Surely the industrial world can muster the foresight, intelligence, and political will to resolve the world energy challenge. A number of steps can be taken to ensure that the projections of future energy shortages never take place. Among such proposals:

* Conservation. Much yet remains to be done to exploit this obvious source of energy. The Office of Technology Assessment, for example, points out that, by applying rigid conservation standards to America's urban buildings alone, by the year 2000 the US could save an amount of energy equal to two-thirds of current US oil imports. So far as US consumers are concerned, an increase in the four-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax at this time of falling retail prices would give a quick boost to conservation. And of course, there should be no major pullback from existing energy standards for cars, appliances, etc.

* Alternative energy sources. The world could well take a leaf from Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, who have called for creation of more diverse, and dispersed, renewable energy sources. Solar power, for example, is certainly applicable to large parts of the world, even if federal funding has been reduced in the United States. And those US budget cutbacks for alternative energy sources seem unwise in the long run. The US also needs to streamline regulations now inhibiting production and use of its vast coal reserves. It could also expedite decontrol of domestic natural gas prices.

In this connection, any new international source of energy, such as the Soviet natural gas supplies that will eventually flow through the European pipeline system, can be seen as an expansion of the total energy pool and therefore a step in liberating nations from dependence on existing oil stocks.

* Synthetic fuels. Here South Africa has shown one logical way towards energy independence. The US program, which started with such promise only two years ago , has turned sour, as major firms like Exxon have pulled back from the enormous dollar costs involved. The Reagan administration has also been critical of the government-industry synfuels approach. Yet, a modest synfuels program seems warranted.

* Tax policies. The industrial nations must go further in granting tax credits for investments in energy-saving projects.

The industrial world at the moment enjoys a lull in the energy-supply challenge. The task is to use that breathing space to forestall a serious world energy crisis in the future. The world cannot say it has not been warned.

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