THE National Energy Strategy proposed by President Bush has sparked a sharp and sometimes emotional debate between producers and conservationists, both worried about America's declining oil reserves. Oil company officials warn that the United States must vigorously exploit offshore fields for oil and gas, as well as deposits in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Otherwise, US output of petroleum will fall dramatically over the next 20 years.
Conservationists counter that the Bush policy, which favors more oil drilling, would ``drain America first.'' Development of what could be the nation's last large oil fields would deny an adequate supply of petroleum to future generations of Americans.
The White House has joined forces with oil companies in urging that America exploit its resources and pump all the oil it can. Officials express puzzlement over efforts by conservationists to ``lock in'' oil reserves.
The president's energy strategy would boost American oil production from about 7.3 million barrels a day in 1990 to nearly 10 million barrels a day in the year 2005. Even with increased drilling, however, US output would begin to fall in succeeding years.
Eventually, by the year 2030, US oil output would drop to less than 5 million barrels a day under the president's plan.
W. Henson Moore, deputy secretary of energy, says: ``I'm not aware of any country that has the capacity [to produce oil] that is saying, `Let's save it.'... That's a strategy that we don't understand, nor do we see any logic to it.''
Robert Horton, chairman of the British Petroleum Company, avers: ``Charity begins at home.'' He recently told an American audience: ``It's your choice and yours alone not to make the most of your domestic resources. But I would remind you that the competitive costs of that strategy could be considerable.''
L. G. Rawl, chairman of Exxon Corporation, says some environmentalists who seek to protect wildlife areas in Alaska from drilling take ``a cavalier and arrogant attitude that ignores our nation's need for energy.'' He adds: ``No other country in the world would take such a position on domestic oil prospects.''
Yet critics of the president's policies abound. Even within the Bush administration, one hears quiet concern that the White House is putting too much emphasis on production, and too little on conservation.
Critics also insist that the government should more vigorously pursue renewable fuel technologies, such as wind and solar, which could eventually replace oil, coal, and gas.
Mike Matz, chairman of the Alaska Coalition, a conservation group, is typical of those who have upbraided the president's energy policies. He calls the views of Energy Department officials, such as Mr. Moore, ``very sad.'' Mr. Matz says:
``We do have a very great responsibility to all those who follow us, to our kids and grandkids. [We must] make sure we are taking the steps now to make the transition from an oil dependent economy to something else better.''
Howard Geller, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, says the administration's emphasis on production instead of conservation ``is the same type of energy strategy that led us to war in the Persian Gulf.''
Complaints extend beyond the environmental community. For example, Greg Rueger, senior vice president of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in San Francisco, says ``we need to worry'' about future generations, and about whether we are pumping America dry.
Mr. Rueger considers the next 10 years critical for future US energy policy, for it will lock many policies into place well into the 21st Century.
The debate over energy is coming to a head. In recent years, US dependence on foreign oil has grown. Today, the US imports 42 percent of its oil, and that will grow to 65 percent early in the next century unless strong measures are taken soon.
In the US, oil fields are playing out. And officials say they doubt that large new fields can be found, except possibly in northern Alaska. As Mr. Rawl of Exxon says, in terms of oil exploration, the US ``is a mature area with a history of more than a century of extensive drilling.''
The US is far-and-away the most explored nation on earth for petroleum. About 600,000 of the 900,000 producing oil wells in the world were drilled in the US, industry officials say.
Furthermore, US oil is becoming difficult and costly to extract. Rawl says a typical US well now produces just 15 barrels a day, compared with 5,000 barrels a day for wells in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, a barrel of oil can be brought to the surface for just $1 in production costs. In the US, the costs per barrel, particularly for offshore wells, are many times that much.
John Sawhill, president of the Nature Conservancy, says: ``Most experts believe that the possibility of finding an elephant, or a giant field, is so remote in the US that no matter how much exploration we do, we're not going to come up with one.''
However, Energy Department officials insist that this is the time to produce America's remaining oil. Moore puts it this way concerning the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which may contain between 600 million and 9.2 billion barrels of oil:
``ANWR is of no value unless you produce it. And the point is, it's costing us now. It's costing us in terms of the cost of imported oil, the tankers that are spilling oil that is coming into our waters.''
Moore insists that Bush's policy is designed to help future generations, not hurt them.
``This strategy is being designed primarily for them. You look at the year 2030, this isn't a tomorrow strategy. It's one where we're going to be using less oil in 2030.... We're going to be using alternatives to it,'' like methanol and nuclear energy.
Conservationists don't agree. They remind officials that today's citizens have an obligation of stewardship toward the future, a duty reflected in an old saying that may have originated with the Amish:
``We didn't inherit this land from our fathers. We are borrowing it from our children.''