Since the election of Ronald Reagan, the nation has approached
energy policy in the same ambivalent way it has approached sex
education: some people think it is indispensable; others think it
is none of the government's business.
A silent majority appears to grudgingly agree that something is
needed. But in Washington the attitude often seems to be, Do we
really have to talk about it in public?
One of the most surprising things about the war in the Persian
Gulf, and the third oil crisis in less than 20 years, is how little
it has done to shake this complacency.
As Brooks B. Yeager, a lobbyist for the National Audubon
Society, put it, oil policy and the oilfield war are ``eerily
disengaged from each other.''
Last week the Bush administration's draft energy strategy leaked
out, perhaps as a trial balloon, and experts in the field found it
more remarkable for what it does not say than for what it does.
The plan could still change before it goes to Congress, which
will probably happen this week.
But in its preliminary form the draft evokes the Reagan years.
The emphasis is not on conservation but on the supply side, with
calls for pumping oil in areas previously off limits for
environmental reasons and for deregulating pipeline operators and
Electricity, in fact, is heavily stressed, with a continued
federal commitment to nuclear power.
But electric companies do not use much oil, and besides, said
Mary Kenkel, a spokeswoman for the Edison Electric Institute, the
trade association of investor-owned utilities, they use the thick,
heavy stuff that no one else wants.
``That oil, even if it's displaced, is not going to power your
automobile,'' she said.
Bush's plan would make it easier to build natural gas pipelines,
but at present, gas is in surplus.
He would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling,
but that, say the experts, would only delay the decline of American
oil production, not stop it.
Energy policy, to the extent that it exists at all, is still
driven by what Peter C. Beutel, an oil analyst at Pegasus
Econometric Group, in Hoboken, N.J., calls a Republican mantra:
``The Market Is Our Policy.''
But Adam Smith's invisible hand has increased dependence on
imports by choking domestic production.
In the late 1980s domestic production declined sharply as an
Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries price war made Texas
and Oklahoma wells uneconomical. At the same time, demand kept
rising. Imports made up 31 percent of demand in 1985; now they
make up nearly half.
A year ago the Department of Energy seemed poised to propose
steps to modernize everything in America that uses energy, to do the
same work with less.
Adm. James D. Watkins, the energy secretary, said last summer
that the one area in which consensus existed was for higher
But the draft of the Bush plan includes very few of those.
In a way, Bush has replaced energy policy with foreign policy;
the problem of expensive oil went away when the bombers went in.
Some people favor a more direct approach to oil, however. U.S.
Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, complained that an energy policy should not
have to rely on ``fragile coalitions and the prosecution of a war.''
The war could conceivably push Congress into demanding more from
the administration. Congress has 80 energy bills waiting, some
paralleling Bush's plan.
Congress may also try a new windfall-profits tax, although it
seems unlikely any oil company would earn enough to pay it in 1991.
Higher on Congress' agenda is raising the efficiency standards
for automobiles, which were introduced after the first oil shock in
1973 but are now at a plateau of 27.5 miles per gallon.
A proposal by U. …