Last year Americans broke a five-year oil diet in 1984 with a 3.5 percent increase in petroleum consumption. To the oil and gas industry, that figure, from the American Petroleum Institute, suggests a partial return to a decade ago when annual energy demand growth was unquestioned gospel.
To many economists, the increased consumption could be expected during an economic recovery that saw the United States gross national product grow at a 6.9 percent clip after inflation.
But environmentalists who fought fiercely for solar power and energy conservation in the tumultuous period between the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the 1980 oil glut are reading this as a relapse into complacency and therefore as a dangerous augury.
Their concerns were summarized a recent Worldwatch Institute paper. In ``Energy Productivity: Key to Environmental Protection and Economic Progress,'' William U. Chandler argues that world governments would be making a terrible mistake if they abandoned energy conservation efforts.
``A sanguine outlook pervades the energy community as forecasters again draw curves of energy growth bending toward the tops of their graphs. Some suggest a tripling of demand by 2025. If these visions become reality, the world will pay an enormous economic and environmental price,'' Mr. Chandler warns.
A recent survey of long-term energy demand forecasts from 328 organizations around the world -- governments, oil companies, universities, environmental groups, and energy consultants -- found that the median projection for the year 2000 called for a 125 percent increase. The poll, conducted regularly by the International Energy Workshop, includes almost all of the ``serious'' attempts at energy forecasting.
Where some analysts see the current oversupply of oil and falling prices as a victory for free enterprise, environmentalists such as Chandler view it as a brief respite made possible by conservation.
The real price of gasoline has dropped to what it was in 1974, he points out. ``About two-thirds of the energy conservation which has taken place has been due to price. With oil prices softening, however, the biggest reason for conserving is eroding, if not totally disappearing,'' he worries.
Thus, he reasons, the temporary gains from conservation are now in danger of being washed away by a return to conspicuous consumption.
If the latest energy projections are in the ballpark, Chandler estimates, by 2025 the world will require new oil fields equivalent to two Saudi Arabias; a tripling of world coal production; four-and-a-half times as much hydropower as today; and a number of new nuclear power plants.
``Among the consequences of using so much energy would be greater risk of acid rain, carbon dioxide-induced climate change, species extinction, nuclear weapons proliferation, water degradation, human dislocation, and capital shortages and debt,'' Chandler warns.
This need not be the case, he points out. There is tremendous capability left to increase the energy efficiency of modern economies and still allow economic growth.
According to a computer model developed at the Institute for Energy Analysis and run using Worldwatch estimates of currently available energy conservation technology, world energy demand in the year 2000 could be reduced by 22 percent below the US Department of Energy's current midrange projections. This would substantially reduce sulfur emissions implicated in acid rain and carbon dioxide that may be gradually warming Earth's climate. By the year 2025, $2 trillion worth of energy would be saved at half the total cost in conservation technology, Chandler calculates.
Some feel market forces alone will continue to drive conservation. James L. Sweeney of Stanford University says that ``long-run energy price adjustments tend to be substantially greater than adjustments occurring over several years or even a decade.'' -- 30 --