Saving energy

CRITICS of the US Synthetic Fuels Corporation must be having a hard time keeping themselves from chuckling these days. Here, after all, is the multibillion dollar synthetic fuels program once again caught up in controversy at the same time the US finds itself concerned about a disruption of oil through the Strait of Hormuz because of the Iran-Iraq war.

What's happening now is ironically reminiscent of the way the synfuels program began - back in 1979 and 1980. In 1979 the US and other industrial nations faced the second major oil price hike and supply disruption in that decade, following the earlier sharp price increases in 1973. The synfuels program was part of the Carter administration's effort to reduce US dependency on imported oil. The effort encompassed conservation, federally mandated fuel efficiency standards for cars, and development of the US Strategic Oil Reserve.

The quasi-governmental synfuels corporation was designed to encourage the building of plants that could convert coal, oil shale, and tar sands into liquid fuels.

Given current concerns about world oil deliveries - as well as the continuing controversy surrounding the synfuels program itself - this seems a good moment for Americans to reaffirm some of the fundamental lessons learned from the late 1970s: namely, that conservation efforts are vital; and that the US should press on as quickly as possible with the Strategic Oil Reserve.

There is another lesson that needs to be identified. The synfuels program, as currently structured, is not meeting its promise. That recognition comes not just from the Reagan administration but also from environmentalists and from a number of liberals. Democratic Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin, never diffident about calling the shots as he sees them, has dubbed the synfuels corporation ''a financial Frankenstein.''

This week another top official of the corporation resigned amid conflict-of-interest charges. With the latest resignation, five of the seven seats on the corporation's board of directors are vacant. The administration is urging Congress to slash funding for the corporation before the White House sends up a full slate of nominees for the board.

To date, synfuels projects have not worked economically. Thus, reducing federal outlays (to leave intact a few ongoing projects as well as continuing research) has merit. Meanwhile, Americans need to redouble their conservation efforts.

The big gains in energy savings in the late '70s and early '80s came chiefly from conservation. The superiority of energy efficiency over energy waste remains a guiding principle of a workable US energy policy.

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