FOR the third time in 17 years, Middle East instability has energized Washington to talk about energy. The current Persian Gulf crisis has spotlighted the importance of reducing growing United States dependence on imported oil for almost half of its energy.
From the White House to Capitol Hill everyone agrees a reduction should be undertaken now, as both President Bush and House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri indicated in their televised addresses this week.
But Congress and the president differ on what is most important to do this year. Congress wants to mandate conservation, the president seeks to encourage further oil and gas exploration. Each is skeptical of the other's approach. As a result, few changes in US energy policy may actually occur this year.
Proponents of change worry that the momentum for drawing up a farsighted policy may slip away when world tensions ebb, without the US having acted.
``We need an energy strategy for the future that ensures that we do not repeat the old mistakes of the early 1970s that saw America paralyzed by the inability to articulate long-term solutions,'' says Rep. Claudine Schneider (R) of Rhode Island, a longtime proponent of greater energy efficiency.
During the 1970s, the US dropped its efforts to make itself more nearly self-sufficient in energy when the Middle East political crises of that decade eased and relatively cheap imported oil flowed again.
The US imports one-third more oil now than it did when the first Middle East oil embargo crimped the international fuel line in 1973. Domestic production has declined, and the US would be importing even more today had it not doubled the energy efficiency of its cars during the 1970s and similarly raised the efficiency of new buildings and industries.
The most likely change this year stems from budgetary rather than energy considerations. ``We may get an energy tax, strangely enough, as part of the budget deal'' that Congress and the president have nearly completed, says political scientist Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. If the tax is high enough, Americans might reduce their consumption of oil. They already burn one-fourth of what the world produces every year.
Other than a tax, the energy bill with the best prospects of passing Congress this year seeks to reduce oil consumption by forcing automakers to produce cars that go 40 percent farther on a gallon of gasoline. But this proposal meets strong opposition from automakers and President Bush on grounds that cars would have to be smaller, lighter, and less safe.
Other critics see the measure as Japan-bashing. ``One of the hidden agendas here is to punish the Japanese,'' says economist Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution. Japan would have to stop selling its more profitable large cars to meet new and higher mileage requirements.
If Congress approves the bill, which appears unlikely, a senior White House adviser threatens to recommend a presidential veto.
Congress also is talking about ways to boost development of alternative fuels - grain-based ethanol and methanol, hydrogen, wind, and solar. Proponents of alternative energy note that a relatively small amount of oil remains to be tapped in the US - some 26 billion barrels. By comparison, the US now burns 6.3 billion barrels a year.
No one can be sure how much oil lies undiscovered below the surface in the US; the Department of the Interior estimates 49 billion barrels.
For his part, President Bush wants Congress to approve this month new tax incentives to explore domestically for more undiscovered oil and gas, and to make more use of Alaska's energy reserves, including the prospect of a huge amount of oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. White House aides say this refuge may contain more oil than Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, which now provides one-fourth of America's domestic oil output.
Whether to allow drilling in the refuge is contentious; critics fear major environmental damage, despite the administration's assurance that only environmentally sound drilling would be permitted.
Washington has been waiting months for the Bush administration to complete an energy policy. Presidential aides say it is still in process. When completed, it may put another spotlight on what the US should do to meet its long-term energy needs.
America would have been using far less imported oil today if it had had the long-range foresight to enact a high federal gasoline tax years ago, Mr. Mann says. ``It would have been in our long-term interest to take some short-term pain.'' But oil was usually plentiful, and relatively inexpensive ``Nobody felt a crisis, so we didn't do it,'' he adds.
Representative Schneider and others don't want today's opportunity for effective long-range action to similarly slip away.