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Plan ahead to avoid a new oil crisis

With the world now awash in an oil glut and falling gasoline prices it might be well to heed the words of former Energy Secretary James Schlesinger: ''I suspect the energy crisis is over until we have our next energy crisis.'' Mr. Schlesinger's sense of irony -- and timely warning -- befits an ex-energy official who faced his own crisis of long lines at the gas pumps a few years back. The important point is that the current period of ample supplies -- in large part stemming from a falloff in demand because of recession -- not be allowed to lull Americans into complacency about the need for continued conservation and development of alternative energy sources.

Although a combination of high prices, new exploration, conservation, and recession has caused the US to now have the ''lowest level'' of dependence on oil imports in the past 10 years, according to current Energy Secretary James Edwards, it must be recognized that any number of political or economic factors could alter that situation very quickly. The industrial world remains highly vulnerable to the Persian Gulf area for its supplies. The question of a future embargo cannot be totally dismissed; nor can the ability of OPEC nations to make future supply cutbacks. OPEC nations will be meeting in Vienna March 19 to ratify a decision to cut production by more than one-million barrels a day.

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Moreover, as the industrial nations slowly recover from recession in the months ahead demand will surely rise.

Much of the recent reduction in energy (and oil) usage has now been ''built into'' the economic system in, for example, the form of more fuel efficient cars and electrical appliances. But there is still much more that can and should be done to reduce the growth in demand even more. Private citizens must not be tempted to return to an energy ''spree,'' what with lower prices. Washington, for its part, might well consider offering limited subsidies or loans to financially hardpressed firms that convert to coal. Some technical assistance and loans might also be made available to third world nations eager to develop their own oil resources to help spread production as widely as possible. The US should also consider plans to ensure that there will be a fair allocation of existing oil stocks in any future shortage. To that end Mr. Reagan would seem to be well served by signing into law the Standby Petroleum Allocation Act of 1982.

That measure was recently passed by wide congressional margins -- 86-to-7 in the Senate, 246-to-144 in the House. The legislation provides the President authority to allocate oil supplies and control crude and refined product prices during a ''severe petroleum supply shortage,'' and only if the President, in his discretion, decides free market allocation is not working. Yet, the administration is said to be considering vetoing the bill because it runs counter to the free market.

What now seems in order are clear steps -- from continued conservation, to development of alternative energy sources, to standby allocation authority -- to ensure that there need not be a new and unexpected ''energy crisis'' in the years ahead.


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