Energy opportunity

The selection of Donald Hodel to be new US secretary of energy has dismayed conservationists. It has also triggered concerns in Congress that the Reagan administration plans no retreat from the confrontational policies of former Energy Secretary James Edwards, who has resigned, and Interior Secretary James Watt, until recently Mr. Hodel's chief. Yet, tapping an experienced proponent of energy development like Mr. Hodel may prove salutary - provided that lawmakers send clear signals to the administration that the US needs a more balanced energy policy than has been the case under the Edwards-Watt stew-ardship.

Essentially, the present policy - which Mr. Hodel has supported in his role as under secretary of the interior, deputy to Mr. Watt - has been to encourage flat-out domestic oil exploration and development on federal lands, boost drilling on the outer continental shelf, and expedite licensing and construction of new nuclear power projects. That policy has also been marked by indifference and even hostility toward development of alternative energy sources such as solar, geother-mal, and synthetic fuels, and by a cutting back of energy conservation and consumer-information efforts. The administration has also continued to argue that the Department of Energy should be scrapped.

Such an essentially narrow program aimed at fossil fuel development and nuclear power will not be enough to ensure the type of ''Western energy alternatives'' and independence called for by President Reagan earlier this week as part of the new US pact with the allies on lifting US trade sanctions against the Soviet Union. As one element of that pact, the allies have agreed not to sign any new natural gas agreements with the Soviets until the alliance has made a new study on energy alternatives.

Despite the current worldwide oil glut, many experts believe that new energy shortages could develop around the end of this decade as nations rebound from recession. Western industrial nations must therefore continue to seek out and encourage a wide variety of alternatives to reliance on depletable resources such as fossil fuels.

Mr. Hodel, for his part, is not lacking in either administrative experience or an extensive background in energy matters. These stem from his experience as administrator of the federal Bonneville Power Administration from 1973 to 1977. That background will be needed at the Energy Department, considering the often faulty management of that department, as identified in a study by the General Accounting Office. At the same time, lawmakers will want to examine carefully Mr. Hodel's role in the problems of the Washington Public Power Supply System. That system, in Washington state, had to drop construction of two new nuclear power plants at the cost of billions of dollars. Mr. Hodel was one of the major backers of the system.

After being tapped by Mr. Reagan for the top energy post, Mr. Hodel made several conciliatory statements regarding energy development. Such an approach is to be welcomed - and should become continuing policy. The US needs a well-balanced energy policy. It needs the Department of Energy. What it does not need is confrontation just for the sake of confrontation - or a single-minded reliance on fossil and nuclear development without regard for protecting public lands that belong to all the American people.

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