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Yet Another Year of Living Dangerously? : The need for a serious national energy policy

December 09, 1990

Could working harder to perfect solar technology, say, have made oil less crucial to the United States when Iraq grabbed for more of the Persian Gulf's oil? If breakthroughs in solar power are coming too slowly, is nuclear energy the next best bet?

Who knows? Washington has no energy policy to drive the search for answers to such questions. The federal government has never pressed for answers, partly because for so many years it could say: Don't worry, there's more where that came from.

Washington roused itself slightly after Texas oil production peaked in the 1970s, and got really serious after Saudi Arabia embargoed oil shipments to the United States in 1973. But by the time oil prices skidded to $9 a barrel in the mid-1980s, President Reagan had already allowed what little policy there was to wither away. At those prices, he could say, who needs an energy policy?

Talk about living dangerously.

Soon as many as 400,000 American troops may be in the Middle East; they have two missions. One is to enforce the rules for civilized behavior, to demonstrate that the end of the Cold War does not signal open season for regional aggression. The other is to keep Saddam Hussein's hands off the richest oil reserves on Earth.

No less than any industrial society, the United States needs a combination of affordable energy and the efficient use of it. Conservative economists argue that this will result naturally with no help or interference from government. The free market will react to shortages of one source of energy with surpluses of another, just as it did in the 19th Century when whale oil became scarce and petroleum took its place.

Talk some more about living dangerously. In the 19th Century, when whale oil lighted American parlors, the free market had a bigger margin for error. The most serious consequence of a shortage was early bedtime. In the 20th Century, outages could wipe out irreplaceable computer files of data and records; shortages of diesel oil could cut off the food supply of entire cities.

The prospect of war in the Middle East has revived interest in development of an energy policy, and Energy Secretary James D. Watkins is preparing for the White House a new look at the nation's energy resources and at options for shifting to sources other than oil. They will not have changed much.

Americans use less energy to produce goods and services than we did a decade ago, but we can learn, mainly from the Japanese, how to do even better. Electricity is the fastest growing source of energy, but there is not much room for improvement because it already is the nation's biggest energy success story. Southern California Edison, for example, was using 50 million to 60 million barrels of oil in its generators a decade ago. It now uses between 5 million and 6 million. Utilities also continue to expand their own energy resources--using cogenerated power, windmills, still-primitive solar generators, anything that cuts the need for oil and natural gas.

There is more room for improvement in transportation, which consumes only about 25% of all forms of energy but takes nearly 65% of the nation's support of oil. One obvious option is to ratchet up gasoline mileage on cars and trucks.

But an option Watkins should also discuss is that of doing nothing. Too many Americans still think that when it comes to energy, there is more where that came from. Not since President Carter has the public been engaged in a full discussion of the consequences of stumbling from oil shock to oil shock. As Carter learned, it is politically dangerous, if not fatal, to face facts on energy. Still the debate may be a matter of life and death for what President Bush has called "the American way of life." One good place to start is with the mess in nuclear power.

Monday: Nuclear Power

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