Spotlight on Energy

THE Alaskan oil mess is a grim reminder that United States energy and environmental policy are tightly linked - and that both need serious review and adjustment. The Bush administration has such a review under way, and the key officials - Energy Secretary James Watkins and EPA chief William Reilly - both have the experience and clear-headedness to see what needs to be done. Whether they push hard enough for change, and whether they'll have the backing of their boss, are more open questions.

Here's the picture today: The United States is the world's largest oil consumer, with imports (nearly 7 million barrels a day) rising toward the 50 percent mark. Electricity use is pushing upward as well, but with little in the way of new power generation. Official Washington and corporate America have lost interest in alternate energy sources. (Arco is selling its solar subsidiary - the world's largest maker of photovoltaic cells.) And conservation policy - thanks to the Reagan administration's siding with auto and appliance makers - is pretty much ineffectual.

At the same time, environmental questions are intruding ever more forcefully: ozone depletion and global warming, acid rain, wretched smog in the Los Angeles basin, and of course the continuing danger of oil spills.

President Bush is an old Texas oil man, but he has declared himself committed to ``a future that is energy-independent, healthy, and safe.'' Here's our outline for how to achieve such a future:

Don't rule out any energy source, including nuclear power. But make it as safe as possible and make sure its price reflects full costs, including the cost of making the air cleaner and the cost of adequate preparation for mishaps like the Valdez spill.

Lift regulation where it hampers production. Like on natural gas, where 30 percent of domestic production comes under federal price controls. But impose stiffer restrictions in some cases as well. Like on the fleet gas-mileage requirements for new cars. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum says raising the figure to 34 m.p.g. (it's 26.5 today) would save twice the amount of oil spilled off Alaska ``every single day.'' Even if he's only half right, it's worth doing.

Put greater effort - money and political leadership - into alternative energy sources, including conservation. It seems a shame for US companies to be pulling out of solar energy when real progress is being made (and when the Japanese and Germans are getting more involved).

Raise gas taxes and oil import fees? Maybe. It really depends on how much progress can be made in producing (safely) and conserving domestic energy.

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