Emerging Plans Aim to Cut US Oil Imports New Bills Seek Mileage Standards, Research in Alternative Energy; Bush's Rhetoric Assailed

Article excerpt

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. …