THE vacuum of leadership on energy policy, which originated in the Reagan White House and has continued under George Bush, is being filled by bold ideas and action at the state level. New energy and environmental policies are rapidly emerging, piece by piece rather than through federal action.
The president's approach, a classic non-strategy, is a failure because:
* Its focus on conventional energy production and unchecked consumption would continue and exacerbate our addiction to fossil fuels and growing dependence on imported oil.
* It fails to protect environmental values, epitomized by its proposal to sacrifice the unique wilderness ecosystem of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for, at best, a 50-50 chance of finding enough oil to meet the current United States demand for just six to eight months.
* It pays only lip service to energy conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy - the keys to a sustainable energy strategy for the 21st century.
The lack of vision that characterizes White House thinking on energy policy stands in striking contrast to the leadership emerging in the states, in legislatures and governors' offices, as well as in the private sector.
Nine eastern governors and the mayor of Washington, D.C., have agreed to adopt the tough California standards for clean cars and clean air. By leapfrogging beyond Federal requirements, these states and the nation's capital will define the market for alternative fuels and vehicles powered by electricity, natural gas, or alcohol fuel.
This development will not only reduce the amount of smog breathed by one-third or more of the nation's population, it will reduce our oil vulnerability, increase the international competitiveness of the US auto industry by spurring new technology to develop fuel-efficient cars, and form an essential piece of the mosaic of a national energy strategy that is falling into place without Washington's leadership or action.
Governors, legislatures, state energy officials, utility regulators, and utilities are pioneering policies and programs that will actively manage future energy demand rather than responding passively to it. Some examples:
* In New England, 12 utilities have committed $1.65 billion through 1996 to encourage and assist their customers with the installation of high-efficiency lighting, reflective windows, upgraded motors, heating, air conditioners, and other energy-saving equipment in homes, offices, and factories.
* Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which together serve nearly half the population of California, have announced long-term plans to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, by 20 percent by 2000. They will emphasize conservation, energy efficiency, and renewable resources.
* In New York, Consolidated Edison Company will sell customers high-efficiency compact fluorescent light bulbs at a highly discounted rate. They have also pledged to reduce real electricity consumption 15 percent by 2000. The Public Service Commission has reformed its rate regulation to make energy efficiency more profitable for utilities.
Under the pretext of allowing the free market to prevail, the White House has for a decade used its influence to stymie efforts to foster efficiency, conservation, energy alternatives, and research and development of renewable energy technologies. Going even further, top Environmental Protection Agency officials recently attempted to undercut the adoption of the California clean-car standards for new cars sold on the East Coast.
The failure of the Bush Administration to produce a viable energy strategy is made all the more painful by the fact that last year the lives of 400,000 Americans were put at risk in the Persian Gulf. Our forces were deployed, in large part, not in defense of democratic principles, but rather to preserve our access to the region's vast oil reserves.
President Bush's non-strategy would neither strengthen the US economy nor reduce our addiction to Persian Gulf oil. It would not enhance the ability of our industries to compete more effectively with competitors in Europe and Asia, who are moving forward to develop clean-burning, high-efficiency technologies to capture the environmentally conscious "green" market.
The silver-lining in the cloud of misplaced White House priorities is the emergence at the state and local levels of people of vision who are committed to a cleaner, leaner, meaner, more productive, and competitive economy. By taking action this year to enact national energy-strategy legislation worthy of the name, Congress can show that the federal-state partnership - true federalism in action - is alive and well.