Reagan's mixed success with energy policy
Washington — Two years ago the US Department of Energy seemed endangered. President Reagan , newly elected, was promising to dismantle DOE and scatter its activities among other government agencies.
Today, with strong congressional backing, DOE appears likely to survive. The department's resilience illustrates a broader point: Major items on the administration's energy agenda have been stalled or slowed by Congress.
One major initiative, accelerating the decontrol of oil prices begun under President Carter, took effect early in 1981. And even critics of Reagan's energy policy approve of administration efforts in one area - the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which has at least doubled since the Carter years.
''They have certainly filled (the SPR) faster than Carter did,'' says Solar Lobby president Dick Munson.
But the price of natural gas is still subject to federal regulation. Licensing procedures for nuclear power plant construction have yet to be streamlined. Congress keeps spending more money on energy conservation and renewable energy development than the administration wants - though such programs have been cut severely since 1980.
But it is the continued existence of the Department of Energy - battered, but still waving the flag of government en-ufdaveUS nuclear industry's futureWSPage 3
ergy planning - that best symbolizes the struggle between Congress and the White House over the energy issue.
The administration's one legislative assault on DOE was launched last May, when Mr. Reagan sent Congress a bill that would have eliminated the department and transferred many of its programs to the Department of Commerce. The bill disappeared into the legislative process, never to be seen again.
Congressional aides say they expect the President to try to wipe out DOE again this year, but they don't think the effort will get very far.
''Very frankly, I don't feel that a majority of Congress is interested in dismantling DOE,'' says a senior aide to Sen. James McClure (R) of Idaho, the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
But DOE is surviving as a slender version of its former self. In 1981, the US government spent about $6.8 billion for on-budget energy programs. In fiscal 1983, the same programs will cost between $4.8 billion and $4.3 billion, estimate congressional sources.
So far, the administration's primary legislative energy achievement has been an acceleration of the decontrol of oil prices. Critics predicted the move would cause gasoline prices to skyrocket, but the cost of unleaded regular gas has dropped about 20 percent since decontrol, according to figures put out by World Energy Industry, an information service. Much of the decrease, however, is attributable to events over which the administration has no control, such as the oil glut.
The item at the top of Reagan's energy agenda is now decontrol of natural gas prices - a campaign promise that has up to now has been headed off by Congress. With natural gas prices predicted to rise 20 percent this winter, despite excess supplies, decontrol is certain to be a hot issue in the next Congress. Some legislators want to march in the other direction, towards the further restraint of a natural-gas price freeze.
''If you pass a freeze on prices for a year or two, we will guarantee a gas shortage down the road,'' objected Energy Secretary Donald Hodel last month.
Secretary Hodel says the President is now being presented with a ''series of options'' on natural-gas decontrol, and that a bill should be sent to Capitol Hill shortly after the first of the year.
Another long-promised administration energy initiative that may appear in January is an attempt to shorten the approval time for new nuclear power plants - an effort that had been bottled up while Congress struggled with a nuclear-waste disposal bill.
Congress and Reagan will likely struggle yet again over money for conservation programs and renewable energy development. Though spending on these efforts has been slashed considerably since the Carter years, Congress has consistently spent more on them than Reagan wants.
For instance, Reagan's '82 budget would have slashed conservation spending 90 percent, to $104 million. Congress upped the ante to $402 million. For two years running, the White House has tried to bolt the doors of the Solar Bank - which provides low-interest loans for solar-energy installations - by cutting it out of the budget. But Congress has refused to go along. The first loans from the besieged bank should go out in February.
''The administration has tried to gut eight years of bipartisan energy authorizations,'' grumbles a Democratic House committee staffer.
The fiscal '84 budget will propose further deep cuts in solar and conservation programs, but final spending will be ''quite a bit higher than the administration wants,'' says the aide.