HALF-WAY around the globe, 500 burning oil wells in Kuwait serve as a constant reminder to Americans that the United States remains dangerously dependent on far-away, unreliable sources of petroleum.Now, after years of delay and dalliance, Congress may finally be moving toward a comprehensive energy strategy which could move America toward greater energy security. Decisions made during the next few months could shape the prosperity, the environment, and the strategic power of the US well into the 21st century. It is too early to conclude, however, whether Congress will succeed at this historic task. On Capitol Hill, the urgency of the Persian Gulf war has been replaced by the clamor of special interests. Congressmen are besieged by oil drillers, environ- mentalists, automakers, natural gas salesmen, and the advocates of every kind of energy, from solar to nuclear to wind to hydro. Under pressure from these competing claims, Congress and President Bush must make dozens of long-range decisions, including: * Whether to force automakers to increase fuel efficiency to an average of 40 miles per gallon by 2001. * Whether to open an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling. * Whether to speed the construction of nuclear power plants by expediting the current two-step licensing process. * Whether to require private and public vehicle fleets to use engines which can run on alternative fuels such as natural gas. * Whether to establish new efficiency standards for appliances, including lights, electric motors, showerheads, and heating and cooling equipment. The stakes are enormous. Automakers claim that increasing mileage standards would cost them billions of dollars in capital investment, and put the jobs of thousands of Americans at risk. Oil companies argue that without drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the US will lose access to billions of barrels of petroleum in northern Alaska. Environmentalists, who scoff at the energy potential of ANWR, say that tighter energy standards for autos and appliances could save more oil than Alaska could ever produce. Safety experts, worried that higher mileage requirements will mean smaller cars, claim that thousands of Americans will be killed needlessly by new automobile efficiency standards. Advocates of nuclear energy, sensing an opportunity, insist that greater use of atomic power would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and slow global warming, or the "greenhouse effect." Experts say that two competing issues are central to the entire energy debate. Those issues, which have split the Congress, are Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The CAFE and ANWR struggle has overshadowed everything else. Unless it can be resolved, it could shatter any hopes for an energy policy in this Congress. Of the two issues, CAFE will have the greater impact on most Americans. Under the sponsorship of Sen. Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada, a widely supported effort is under way in the Senate to boost the fuel efficiency of a typical car to 40 m.p.g. The Bryan bill has more than 40 co-sponsors, including Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine. It is ready for floor action this fall. The White House is threatening a veto. Automakers and safety experts bemoan the 40 m.p.g. requirement, not only because it would be costly to design new, high-mileage cars, but because these cars might be smaller, and less safe.
ADVOCATES of the Bryan bill, however, say something must be done to steer Detroit and Tokyo toward better mileage. They point to Nissan's new Infiniti Q45 sedan as proof. When it was introduced, Nissan bragged that that Q45's new V-8 engine "takes you smoothly from zero to 60 in just over 7 seconds - and cruises comfortably at 150 miles per hour." A Senate aide scoffs: "It is absolutely absurd. In the past two years, cars have gone from an average of about 90 horsepower to about 110, and the overall speed has gone up. The opponents talk about safety, yet they produce cars that go 150 miles an hour." American companies are no different. General Motors' new, modified Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 zoomed 5,000 miles "at an average speed of over 175 m.p.h.!" a recent advertisement boasted. Under pressure to sell power and speed, the fleet mileage for most manufacturers, including Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Volvo, and Volkswagen, has dropped during the past two years. Nevertheless, the White House and some members of Congress, such as Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D) of Louisiana, insist that the greatest need is for more US oil production. They urge the opening of ANWR, in northeast Alaska, where large deposits of petroleum are believed to exist under the permafrost. A comprehensive energy bill written by Senator Johnston and Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming, and similar to the administration's national energy strategy released earlier this year, includes a provision to open ANWR for exploration. That bill is also ready for floor action. Unless ANWR is opened, the Department of Energy says, the Trans-Alaska pipeline that carries oil from Prudhoe Bay will be shut down by early in the next century, and America's most promising new source of oil will be lost. But the outlook for Johnston's bill is uncertain. Without higher CAFE standards, which his bill does not include, chances for passage are slim. On the other hand, a combination of the Johnston and Bryan bills might get through the Senate, but could still face a presidential veto. As a Senate aide puts it: "Most senators do not want to vote against a comprehensive energy policy. After all, most of these guys have gone around for the last 10 years saying we don't have an energy policy." The bottom line? Despite tough going, experts expect the Senate to act this fall, with the House close behind. But Mr. Bush, and his veto pen, may have the last word.