Prodigal Energy

IN designating Energy Secretary Donald Hodel to be the new secretary of the interior, President Reagan is in effect shifting the Interior Department back toward the land and energy practices of that department before the Department of Energy was established in 1977. Before this, many of the functions of that agency were located in the Interior Department.

What the designation of Mr. Hodel -- an energy expert -- would mean for the current and future management of Interior is the key question that lawmakers will surely want to ask when the lanky and articulate Westerner goes before the US Senate as part of his confirmation process. The question seems particularly important, since Mr. Reagan's designated nominee to be the new secretary of energy -- John S. Herrington -- has no known background in energy-related matters. Mr. Herrington, a lawyer, is assistant to the president for personnel.

In other words, the person who presumably knows most about energy matters in the entire Reagan administration would now be heading up Interior, which, as a department, is entrusted with protecting the nation's natural resources. Meanwhile, the person who would be heading up Energy is a person with an apparent lack of direct expertise in energy matters.

Noting all this is not to detract from either Mr. Hodel or Mr. Herrington. Granted, many environmentalists have expressed criticism about Mr. Hodel over the years. As a former administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, Mr. Hodel was one of the principal architects of the so-called WHOOPS project, a planned five-plant nuclear power complex in the Pacific Northwest. WHOOPS has since turned out to be the largest corporate default of a utility in the nation's history. And Mr. Hodel was later deputy to former Interior Secretary James Watt, who favored development of resources.

Still, many environmentalists also recognize that Mr. Hodel has grown enormously since moving over to Energy. He has proven himself an able, low-keyed administrator, cooperative with Congress, and willing to listen to and talk with his critics. Despite administration opposition, he sought funding for solar power and backed energy-conservation measures. And he has not pushed nuclear power development with any particular fervor since moving to Energy. In short, Mr. Hodel could be expected to bring solid qualities to his new job at Interior.

Mr. Herrington, meanwhile, is said to be a good manager and a tireless worker.

The confirmation of the energy-and-development-oriented Mr. Hodel at Interior, however, would surely seem to be added reason for keeping the two departments totally separate, rather than merging Energy and Interior. Indeed, the administration, although proposing budgets for the two departments for fiscal year 1986, is going ahead with a planned study of a possible merger. Does the nomination of Mr. Hodel somehow fit into that larger objective?

Energy and Interior should remain separate agencies. Energy is essentially a development-related agency. Many of its functions are defense oriented. Interior, by contrast, is tasked with preserving the nation's natural resources. It seems in the best interest of all Americans to keep the two agencies totally distinct and competitive at this time.

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