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Long Memories

April 23, 1986

Americans may be a little less conscientious about saving energy than they were in the recent past, but that does not mean that the fuel-conservation ethic that was forced on the country in the 1970s is about to go by the boards. That's the conclusion of private and government energy experts, who find that even with oil prices markedly down energy demand is staying pretty much under control. One reason is that conservation has increasingly become a matter of design and not just choice. Another explanation is that the public's memory about energy problems seems to be a lot longer than many people thought.

Thus a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll published last week found that an overwhelming 89% of those asked think that it's still as important to conserve energy now as it was a few years ago. A main reason is that most people--73%--think that this year's big decline in oil prices is a temporary thing, probably destined to disappear before next spring. An even larger number--77%--foresee another energy crisis for the nation sometime in the next decade. Both assumptions are at least plausible.

So, even as gasoline demand has gone up modestly and overall energy use has been boosted because of greater economic activity, the public appears to sense that abundant and relatively cheap oil is only a temporary thing. If this belief continues to be acted on, the time when a major rise in consumption will trigger a big boost in oil prices can at least be postponed. Helping that prospect along are great advances made in the last10 years or so to make energy use more efficient.

Cars, even the bigger ones, get more miles to the gallon than their predecessors did, and as older models are replaced the overall level of fuel efficiency will continue to rise. Newer homes are heavily insulated to cut down on energy waste, and many older buildings have been retrofitted to make them more energy-efficient. Industrial processes have been refined to consume less energy, and motors and appliances of all kinds are now designed with greater fuel economy in mind.

These improvements aren't going to be discarded. But they don't of themselves assure stability in oil prices and supplies. Lower oil prices threaten the United States with the loss of millions of barrels a day in high-cost oil production. Before long the big fields in Alaska and the North Sea will see production declines. Today's cheaper prices have cut deeply into new oil exploration and development. There's still a lot of oil known to be in the ground. The trouble is that most of it is in Persian Gulf countries, whose governments showed in the 1970s that they could be less than reasonable in their pricing policies.

Other industrialized countries, recognizing that the current oil-price situation is temporary, have kept stiff taxes on fuels to discourage consump-tion. The United States hasn't done that, although in the case of gasoline at least it should. But for now American energy consumers seem to be behaving responsibly. The longer that can be kept up, the better the chances that oil prices can be kept under control.

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