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The US needs a federal energy policy

ENERGY is back in the headlines. Recent events in the Persian Gulf have jolted Americans once again into awareness of the vulnerability of their energy supply. But the Reagan administration seems to have neither a coherent policy nor a broad view of the problem. Four separate and contradictory positions taken by the administration and Congress in recent months demonstrate the lack of a comprehensive plan. These are new minimum efficiency standards for major appliances; raised speed limits on rural Interstate highways; the push for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and the United States military presence in the Persian Gulf.

In 1986, Congress passed a bill that set federal minimum energy efficiencies for major appliances such as refrigerators, water heaters, and washers and dryers. California enacted a similar law several years ago, and the typical refrigerator sold in that state today is one-third more efficient on average than the typical refrigerator marketed nationally. Because of California's successful experience with the standards, a number of other state legislatures have introduced similar measures for consideration. Appliance manufacturers, leery of the chaos of trying to market products to comply with many different state laws, prefer to operate with a single, predictable set of national standards.

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President Reagan vetoed the 1986 bill, despite its bipartisan and industry support, because it conflicted with his policy of deregulation, and because he considered it too costly. The efficiency standards would involve about $4.7 billion in extra manufacturing costs passed on to consumers. What the President failed to note, however, was that these price increases would be more than offset by energy savings of nearly $28 billion by the year 2000. These energy savings are estimated by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D), floor manager of the bill, to be equivalent to the output of 22 nuclear power plants. Congress again passed the legislation in 1987, and this time, to his credit, Mr. Reagan changed his mind and signed the bill into law.

Earlier this year Congress, with the approval of the administration, allowed states to raise the speed limit on rural Interstate highways. The debate centered overwhelmingly on two issues: states' rights and the number of increased highway fatalities likely at higher speeds. Little was mentioned about the fact that automobiles traveling at lower speeds use far less gasoline than those traveling faster. Yet the 55-mile-an-hour limit originally went into effect as an energy conservation measure in the wake of the oil embargo and price increases of 1973-74. The lack of a coherent energy policy on the part of both Congress and the administration meant that an issue with major impact on resource consumption was decided with minimal consideration of its resource implications.

At other times, however, the administration appears to be aware of the need for a national energy policy. Tellingly, those other occasions seem only to occur when an energy argument coincides with other goals of the administration.

At present the goal of oil interests and the administration is to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration, despite the availability of a much vaster area of the Northern Slope, outside the refuge for leasing. The industry wants access to suspected reserves within easy reach of the coastline before the end of Ronald Reagan's second term, because of his administration's view that resources ``locked up'' on public lands should be turned over to the forces of free enterprise. It is a view unlikely to be held as fervently by any of Reagan's likely successors, Republican or Democratic.

Although we cannot be sure how much oil might lie below the fragile strip of coastal plain, even optimists concede that the amount is not likely to provide even one full year of the country's needs.

Yet in the name of an energy policy, the Reagan administration is asking the American people to take a chance on disturbing the ecological balance of one of the most sensitive ecosystems on earth - when those appliance efficiency standards that the administration was so reluctant to endorse will save more oil than could conceivably be found within the Arctic Refuge.

Still in search of an energy policy, the administration has now increased the US presence in the Persian Gulf. By reflagging foreign oil tankers and sending the US military to join them, we are declaring our dependence on foreign oil. Just how dependent are we? This past March, the Department of Energy released a report warning that the US is moving toward another energy crisis. During the mid-1970s, we reduced our consumption levels and diversified our sources of supply, bettering the balance sheet between domestic supplies and imports. Recently our reliance on imports has risen sharply, to the point that we are now more dependent upon foreign sources of oil than we were in 1973 at the outset of the oil embargo.

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We welcome the administration's newfound awareness of the energy issue. But we question the pursuit of energy options that carry the highest environmental and political risks, when lower-risk strategies are available.

What would a comprehensive energy policy look like? Arthur Rosenfeld, a physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, claims that a comprehensive energy conservation plan could obviate the need for the construction of any new power plants during the next 20 years. Dr. Rosenfeld goes on to note that even our sporadic efforts at energy conservation since 1973 have produced a yearly saving of $150 billion. And yet the average American, mostly because of profligate habits, still uses twice as much energy as does the average German, Swiss, or Japanese citizen who enjoys a comparable standard of living. Despite occasional attention to an impending energy crisis, the administration has seen fit to make drastic cuts in yearly expenditures for conservation efforts. The supply-side perspective of this administration has blinded it to the enormous potential reserves of energy to be found on the demand side, and forced it to pursue a high-risk strategy.

The country deserves a comprehensive, coherent energy policy. It deserves thoughtful discussion and consideration of energy issues whenever federal policy is being set, not just when it suits the administration's purposes.

Michael Zimmerman is a biology teacher at Oberlin College in Ohio. Carolyn Watkins is a teacher in Oberlin's Environmental Studies and Government Department.