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Americans want growth -- but not at the expense of clean air, water

Americans may want US industry to be revitalized, but not at the expense of clean air, water, and a safe environment. This conclusion leaps from a fresh study released by President Carter's Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), in conjunction with Resources For the Future (RFF), a non- profit research organization.

"Americans," says Gus Speth, chairman of CEQ and top White House environmental spokesman, "seem willing to pay the price for environmental quality."

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This comes at a time, observers note, when both President Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan are in full hue and cry to upgrade US industries on a massive scale and reduce American dependence on foreign oil.

Such goals, many experts believe, cannot be achieved without some easing of existing air, water, and other environmental safeguards.

Centerpiece of the government's effort to reduce oil use, for example, is a quantum jump in the burning of coal, considered a dirty fuel.

Technology exists, says Robert McClements Jr., executive vice-president of the Sun Oil Company, to burn coal cleanly, "but it costs money."

"The problem," Mr. McClements said in an interview, "is to transform a cheap energy source [raw coal] into high-priced energy which can be safely used."

Huge sums also must be spent, experts agree, to develop ways of extracting oil and gas from coal, shale, and other formations, without degradation of the environment.

Individual Americans, the CEQ/RFF study indicates, try to assign priority in their own minds to vital, but sometimes conflicting, national interests -- faster economic growth (more jobs), control of inflation, and protection of the environment.

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Sixty-one percent of those polled, for example, chose solar energy as the energy source on which the United States should "concentrate most."

In fact, both government and industry are spending the bulk of energy development funds on oil, coal, and synthetic fuels, as a bridge to the time when solar may make more than a marginal contribution.

As the US economy grows in the years to come, McClements and other experts see an irreducible need for foreign oil in the range of 7 million or 8 million barrels a day.

To keep oil imports even at that level, they contend, will require not only stepped-up conservation but maximum use of US oil, coal, and synthetics, until photovoltaics and other solar technologies play a major role.

Early in the next century, some experts believe, the use of solar energy in the United States may be supplemented by nuclear fusion, expected to be a safe and inexhaustible energy source.

Nuclear power plants, by contrast, were the least popular energy source among adults questioned by the Roper Organization and Cantril Research Inc. for the CEQ/RFF report.

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