THE US Department of Energy was created in 1977, and calls for its abolition have resounded ever since. The imminent departure of the incumbent secretary, Donald Hodel, has prompted a new round of questions about the need for a Cabinet-level focus on national energy policy. Ironically, however, nothing of the sort has existed for several years. What masquerades today as a ``Department of Energy'' is in fact a ``Nuclear Weapons and Services Administration.'' The real issue is whether to restore what the Congress thought it was creating eight years ago.
As recently as the publication of its annual report for 1980, ``the Department of Energy [saw] its mission as assuring the nation's orderly transition from an economy dependent upon oil to an economy relying upon diversified energy sources. . . . During the forthcoming 5-year period, the most readily available, economic source of additional energy is conservation, or the more efficient use of the energy now being consumed.''
The department's view of its mission today, however, is best assessed by reference to its current budget:
Sixty cents of every dollar goes to the production and maintenance of nuclear weapons.
Of the funds that remain for development of energy technologies, nearly 60 percent are earmarked for nuclear power.
Compared with 1980 allocations, funding for solar and other renewable energy resources has been cut 73 percent; investment in energy conservation is down by 43 percent.
This is hardly a program calculated to promote diversified and affordable energy supplies for the United States. The Department of Energy must be one of the last repositories of institutional faith in nuclear power; no new nuclear plants have been ordered since 1978; and 115 canceled units since 1972 have cost the US utility industry in excess of $20 billion.
The department's recently established goal of 438 new nuclear plants by the year 2000 (or the equivalent in large coal-fired plants) has provoked nothing more substantial than incredulity from utility board rooms and state capitols. There, and in many other quarters, the new imperatives for energy supply are short construction schedules and modest unit sizes -- essential attributes of the very conservation and renewable technologies that the Department of Energy has subordinated to its nuclear obsession.
The national interest in managing our energy future has not diminished since the department's birth; the Washington-based Energy Conservation Coalition recently reinforced the point by noting that net energy imports accounted for almost five-sixths of the nation's worsening trade deficit in 1983.
Invocations of the ``free market'' as an all-purpose prescription for energy ills are at least 60 years too late; conservation and renewable energy systems continue to struggle uphill against intensely regulated utilities and intensely subsidized alternative technologies. Of course, that struggle is paying steady dividends in reduced fossil fuel consumption and increased efficiency of energy-consuming buildings and equipment. But it is in part an indictment of the department that so many obstacles still impede the pursuit of our own consumers' -- and society's -- self-interest.
If the Department of Energy decides to take its 1980 mission statement seriously, it can make a significant contribution to accelerating the development of our cheapest and most environmentally benign domestic energy resources.
As the matter stands, those who have questioned the need for a Department of Energy have won their case by default.
Ralph Cavanagh is a lecturer on energy and water law at Harvard Law School and senior staff attorney with the National Resource Defense Council.