AMERICA'S energy policy can be summed up in two words: ``import oil,'' says Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana. Prodded by war in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, Senator Johnston, President Bush, and other Washington politicians now are crafting new strategies that may wean the United States from foreign petroleum.
On Capitol Hill, about two dozen energy-related bills are making the rounds, including a 264-page document from Johnston. At the White House, officials are debating a national energy strategy that could have a dramatic impact on everyone from Detroit automakers to suburban commuters, from coal miners to manufacturers of windmills.
The challenge is clear. During the past two decades, the world has experienced three severe oil shocks. All were related to political instability in the Middle East.
Yet US dependence on Gulf energy supplies is growing.
Although Americans briefly reduced their use of imported oil during the 1970s and 1980s, the Department of Energy predicts that US reliance on other foreign petroleum will rise from 42 percent of consumption in 1989, to 62 percent in the year 2000, and 70 percent in 2010.
And now, despite the fact that Americans are fighting in Iraq, national leaders still are not ready to deal with energy problems, critics charge.
Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, says President Bush's ``short, vague'' reference to energy in his State of the Union address was discouraging. She predicts Mr. Bush will offer ``little more than the same mix of policies that has now embroiled us in an oil war.''
Johnston, who represents a leading oil state, calls the lack of a national energy strategy ``a colossal failure of will.... Why it's taken this long, I don't know.''
But Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming says it's not really puzzling. US energy policy is overseen by 44 committees and subcommittees of Congress, nine Cabinet secretaries, seven offices of the president, and three or four independent agencies.
``All are more interested in their turf than in policy,'' he says.
Energy issues are also highly controversial. Few topics can turn out more lobbyists, or stir up more politicians than proposals that would raise prices for gasoline, or reduce tax breaks for the oil industry.
When Johnston and Senator Wallop jointly announced an energy strategy this week, an army of special-interest representatives lined up for hours outside the meeting room at the Dirksen office building. Led by lobbyists like Charles DiBona (annual salary, $468,408, according to National Journal) of the American Petroleum Institute, special interests watch over every comma and semicolon of federal energy policy, and vigorously protect their pocketbooks.
Looking for new answers
For years, federal policy has catered to these interests. Billions of dollars of subsidies for research and tax preferences have gone to the petroleum, coal, and nuclear industries.
But as oil fields like Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, begin to run dry, energy experts are looking for new answers.
Energy Secretary James Watkins makes it clear that the two top priorities of a new federal energy strategy should be conservation and renewable energy.
Admiral Watkins spent 18 months developing an energy strategy. He held 18 hearings, listened to 400 witnesses, and received more than 22,000 pages of written comments.
In the 1992 energy budget, Admiral Watkins says: ``Improvement in US energy security requires efforts on several broad fronts, including supporting the environmentally responsible development of oil production capacity...; increasing strategic reserves worldwide; and reducing the use of oil in the US economy through increased efficiency, fuel switching, and development of alternative fuels.''
The admiral reportedly wanted to push efficiency and alternate fuels to establish the department's credibility with conservationists - and perhaps to clear the way for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But the Watkins strategy could be derailed by White House opposition, which analysts say is being led by chief of staff John Sununu. The resulting proposals could be too wishy-washy to satisfy critics or Congress.
For example, Johnston now predicts that because of White House intervention, the Watkins proposals, due in two weeks, probably will include no new standards for auto mileage.
If so, that could give Johnston and others on Capitol Hill, like Sen. Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada, an opportunity to seize leadership from the president.
Senator Bryan, for example, is apparently making significant headway with S279, a bill that would mandate a 20 percent improvement in auto mileage by 1996, and a 40 percent improvement by 2001. He has already picked up 34 cosponsors.
As the bill notes, a 40 percent improvement in mileage would save 2.5 million barrels of oil a day by 2005. ``This is over eight times the amount of oil expected to be available through drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and almost four times the amount of oil imported from Iraq and Kuwait prior to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait,'' the bill declares.
The Johnston-Wallop bill also calls for improved mileage, though not as stringently as the Bryan bill.
Meanwhile, hints about the eventual shape of the White House bill emerged in the new 1992 budget.
Budget for alternatives
Outlays for research on wind energy would rise from $11 million in 1991 to $13.9 million in 1992. Research on photovoltaic energy would rise from $46.3 million to $50.8 million. Biofuels research would rise from $33.1 million to $36.8 million. Some research budgets would drop, however; ocean energy would fall from $2.7 million to zero.
Critics argue that Energy still has its priorities skewed. Jill Lancelot of the National Taxpayers Union complains that Watkins is increasing funds for a multibillion-dollar nuclear processing facility at a time when ``we cannot afford lavish subsidies for the nuclear industry.''