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Conservation's Promise Fades as Fuel Prices Drop, Policies Alter

March 15, 1987|GUY DARST | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Surely you remember the energy crisis of the late 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter went on television wearing a sweater.

We were going to shave with cool water and turn out the lights and turn down the thermostat.

We were going to diminish America's reliance on imported oil, which became scarce and climbed in price, thanks to an embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and long lines formed at gasoline stations.

Once a Rallying Cry

Energy conservation was the rallying cry.

The idea of conservation is still alive today, but it's fading.

Without conservation of energy over the last 13 years, by some estimates, consumption would be 39% higher than it is today.

Americans are still saving energy, the Energy Department said. Last fall, the department estimated that the energy needed to produce a dollar's worth of economic activity would fall 2% in 1986 even as that activity would grow 2.7%. (Later figures show that economic growth was somewhat less, 2.5%, but energy use figures have not been updated yet.)

Many utilities, faced with long construction times, uncertain environmental regulation and flinty-eyed state utility commissions, are pursuing conservation. Persuading their customers to save has become their cheapest source of more available kilowatts.

Efficiency Curve May Flatten

But the Energy Department predicts a slowdown in gains in energy efficiency to 0.2% in 1987.

One reason is that gasoline prices, after adjusting for inflation, are lower than they have been since 1948. Unleaded gasoline at 80 cents a gallon is a third below the 1985 price and is equal to 30 cents a gallon in 1972 dollars, 6 cents below the actual price in that year.

The Reagan Administration is proposing the end of mandatory mileage standards for new cars. Even as it does, Secretary of the Interior Donald P. Hodel and Secretary of Energy John S. Herrington disagree over whether Americans will once again have to wait in lines at gasoline pumps. Hodel predicts that the lines will form within two to five years. Herrington says it won't happen.

Last year, without dissent, Congress passed a bill setting energy standards for household appliances. President Reagan surprised everyone by killing it through a pocket veto. The President said the bill was an infringement on state's rights and would raise the price of appliances by $1.4 billion a year.

Sets Minimum Standards

The appliance bill would set minimum standards of energy efficiency for home stoves, refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers and room air conditioners. It would gain little energy right away, but could be important in the 1990s.

Supporters say families would save an average of $250 a year.

As one of its first acts this year, Congress passed the bill a second time overwhelmingly and Reagan says he won't veto it this time around.

Manufacturers claim that appliance efficiency has improved 39% since 1972 and will gain another 15% by 1990, with or without the bill. But in an about-face from previous opposition, the manufacturers joined conservationists in supporting the bill. They are trying to head off further state standards. Half a dozen states have established standards already.

Despite measures like this, energy conservation has lost support in Washington.

'What's in--What's out'

Some energy interests welcome its demise. The first 1987 issue of the Washington newsletter of the American Nuclear Society, playing the "what's in--what's out" game, said:

"Solar power is 'out.' . . . Pity those poor people with solar panels who now have no maintenance, no spare parts, no warranty service and leaky roofs. Conservation as a government enterprise is 'out.' "

Proof abounds that in Washington, at least, that interest in energy conservation has waned.

In the federal government last year:

- The White House dismantled a solar collector President Carter installed on the roof for heating hot water.

- The Transportation Department rolled back new-car mileage standards to 26 miles per gallon for 1987 and 1988 models from 27.5 m.p.g. General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. sought the reversal because more customers are buying big cars. GM says its fleetwide average will slip from 26.4 m.p.g. last year to 26.1 m.p.g. this year.

- The General Services Administration announced plans to ease government thermostat settings from 68 degrees to 70 in the winter and from 80 degrees to 78 in the summer. The agency said cheating on the current rules is common.

- Congress, in revamping the tax system, let die most tax incentives to develop alternative energy sources. The House Energy and Commerce Committee merged its energy conservation and power subcommittee into its fossil fuels subcommittee.

The Reagan Administration's 1985 National Energy Policy Plan said that conservation depends on "tens of millions of individuals and organizations" and that compulsory efficiency standards "can impose substantial unnecessary costs on the economy."

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