AT this week's economic summit in Venice, President Ronald Reagan stressed the need for our European allies to participate in action to protect our common security interests in the Persian Gulf. In response to the Iraqi attack on the USS Stark, the President increased our military preparedness in the region and plans to take Kuwaiti tankers under our flag and protection. These actions reflect the President's recognition of the essential role of oil in the global economy and his resolve to back the free flow of oil with US military and diplomatic weight. They also point up a glaring contradiction in US energy policies: If we are willing to risk military engagement to ensure the supply of Gulf oil, does it make sense to propose cuts in energy conservation programs that will help reduce our dependence on that oil?
The US has become involved in the ``tanker war'' because we need Persian Gulf oil. Over 40 percent of the energy we consume comes from oil. Over one-third is imported. Imports for both the US and its allies are expected to increase, and more will come from the Gulf.
As the US found in the 1970s, reliance on Persian Gulf oil is dangerous. The first danger arises from the political instability and international hostility in the region. The 1979 Iranian revolution and the 1973 outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war were the chief causes of the oil disruptions of the '70s. As long as the Iran-Iraq war continues, Gulf commercial shipping lanes are part of the war zone.
The second danger is embodied in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). While some argue that OPEC has lost its clout, the cartel still controls most of the world's low-cost oil reserves. By flooding the market with oil, OPEC can put US producers out of business, gain tighter control over the US economy, and, by cutting production or agreeing to raise prices, send the oil-dependent global economy into a tailspin.
An Energy Security Report last March from the Department of Energy documented the dual problem of decreasing domestic production capability and increasing reliance on imports from the Persian Gulf. That report projected that oil imports, mainly from OPEC, could grow to 50 percent of total US consumption by the 1990s.
The Secretary of Energy, testifying before Congress, cited an ``urgent'' need to head off this trend. Oil producers, conservation advocates, and environmentalists warn similarly of future price hikes and possible supply disruptions. The forecasts may be wrong, but acting now could help to ensure that they are.
In April the administration sent a list of energy policy recommendations to Congress in response to the Energy Security Report. These recommendations form, at best, a piecemeal energy policy. There were several measures proposed to stimulate domestic oil and gas production - such as more liberal depletion allowances and exploration for oil in the Alaskan wilderness. Also, a higher fill rate was advocated for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve if Congress would cut expenditures for other programs.
Some of these policies may be warranted, but they alone are not enough. The administration's recommendations ignore our most cost-effective domestic energy resources - conservation and more efficient use of energy. The administration should be taking immediate steps to promote energy efficiency as an essential component of our national energy policy. The Department of Energy's conservation programs have been effective; they deserve congressional support.
If we are willing to send our warships to the Persian Gulf to protect Kuwaiti tankers, should we, as proposed by the administration, cut funding for research and development on conservation technology by 50 percent? Should we, as proposed by the administration, terminate programs that provide technical and financial assistance for conservation for low-income consumers, schools and hospitals, and state and local governments? Should we, as proposed by the administration, repeal fuel efficiency requirements for automobiles?
Obviously not. We must demonstrate at least equal commitment and resolve to promoting efficiency as we do to ensuring adequate supplies of oil.
This resolve has been demonstrated by our allies. Just before the attack on the Stark, at a meeting of the International Energy Agency, our European allies admonished the US Secretary of Energy for the absence of effective government programs to promote energy efficiency. The Secretary went to that meeting to encourage Western European nations to increase their emergency oil stockpiles. Some of them rejected that plea.
Their representatives argued that the US - which accounts for one-fourth of the world's annual energy consumption - should look instead for ways to increase energy efficiency at home. Unlike the current US administration, many allied leaders view energy efficiency and alternative fuels development, in conjunction with strategic oil reserves, as integral parts of their defense against dangerous oil dependence.
Given the risks to protecting US interests in Middle East oil and the costs of increasing domestic oil production, Americans should not accept the administration's benign neglect of energy conservation. Unless we aggressively pursue conservation and efficiency, an essential element of a sound national energy policy is missing.
Senator John Heinz (R) of Pennsylvania is co-chairman of The Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit coalition of business, government, and consumer leaders dedicated to increasing the efficiency of energy use.