For oil and energy, 1976 was a wait-and-see year.

The organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was waiting to see whether the 1973-75 price increases would throw the world into financial collapse. They didn't.

The Arabs were waiting to see whether the United States would cut back oil imports. It didn't.

Europe was waiting to see whether the Ford Administration would come up with an energy program. It didn't.

In this country, the automobile industry was waiting to see whether customers would continue swinging sharply to smaller cars. They didn't.

Americans generally were trying to think of some way to avoid cutting down oil consumption. They didn't.

But 1977 looks like a very different sort of year. OPEC is going to celebrate the New Year by raising prices again. The precise amount is not yet clear, because the quarrel within OPEC over the size of the price has not yet been resolved.

But it serves to remind buyers around the world that there is no real limit to future price increases so long as rising U.S. imports continue to keep oil markets tight and OPEC exports high.

The biggest unknown in this equation is the energy program that the next president, Jimmy Carter, has promised. Despite his two years of incessant political campaigning, he has managed to give remarkably few hints of the direction that he will take.

But he comes to office with several notable advantages that President Ford never enjoyed.

Three years of confused and weak national policy have left a wide range of Americans convinced that further prevarication would be intolerably dangerous and costly.

Except on the political fringes, there is now a wide consensus that the price increases are not merely a conspiracy by the oil companies - and that OPEC is not merely a temporary phenomenon that will collapse automatically under the weight of its own internal quarrels.

As a result, there is now a political base for a strong energy policy - something that did not exist when President Ford came into office in mid-1974. But if the base is there, what is the new administration going to build on it?

A guess: The Carter energy program will begin with a very heavy emphasis on conservation. It probably will be enforced by higher prices and by taxes on both consumers and the oil companies. We also can expect that a lot will be said and done about solar energy.

Solar energy seems to have caught the whole country's imagination, from the environmentalists' to the oil companies'. Money and attention devoted to solar energy would leaven the package of decisions, some of which will be disruptive, expensive and much less popular.

On nuclear energy, it's likely that the Carter program will call for a cautious but steady expansion of the generating system, using the present types of reactors. Similarly, it probably will continue the present slow but steady expansion of coal mining.

What about hard questions like developing the highly dangerous and troubling breeder reactor, or enacting federal laws on strip mining? The crystal ball offers no answers here. But the important point is that neither of these issues will affect the nation's supply-and-demand balance for the next several years.

Why expect this emphasis on conservation? Because, of all of Carter's options, it's the only one that would produce a significant and visible payoff within the four-year presidential term about to begin.

Run down the list: A nuclear reactor takes nearly 10 years to plan, carry through the licensing process, and build. Even if Carter speeds up this process, as he's promised, the reactors added in 1977 to present plans would hardly be in operation before the end of even a second Carter administration - if there is one.

A coal mine takes at least three years to open. Then there is the not-so-minor matter of building up the railroads to carry the coal from the western states, where most of the reserves lie, to the power plants that need it in the north-central and northeastern states.

An offshore oil field takes three to five years to develop and put into production. As for natural gas, the only large new reserve at hand is on the North Slope of Alaska, and the argument over the route for the pipeline is nowhere near settled.

To make conservation work, more is required than exhortation. Telling people to turn down the heat isn't going to do it.

The first step is to peel the price controls off oil, perhaps over a couple of years, and to deregualte natural gas prices as Carter already has suggested.

To make decontrol acceptable to Congress and to Congress's constituents, it will be necessary to combine it with some measure that visibly and painfully takes skin off the oil companies. An excess profits tax is the likeliest device. It's a bad kind of tax in principle, and uncertain in its practical effect. But, as a number of congressmen have pointed out, the public need assurance that decontrol will not merely enrich the oil companies at the consumers's expense.

The present price controls have forced the country into a grossly expensive and wasteful system of actually subsidizing imports. If the country wants to reduce imports, the first thing to do is to stop subsidizing them - and if a bad tax on the oil industry is the political price for that, it is a price worth paying.

Beyond ending the price controls, it will be necessary to put taxes on certain kinds of energy consumption. The ecenomic and social effects of increasing some kinds of fuel costs are greater than others. That logic leads to a steadily rising tax, over the next several years, on gasoline. Why not a law raising it a nickel a gallon every year for the next 10 years?

The idea is not to raise revenue, but to discourate driving. The proceeds of the gasoline tax - nearly a billion dollars a year for every penny added to the tax - could best be used to offset cuts in other taxes.

The necessity for conservation can be illustrated with a few numbers. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, American energy consumption was rising at the frantic rate of 4.5 per cent each year. This enormous rise, incidentally, had a lot to do with giving OPEC the power that it currently wields.

Because of the recession, it's difficult to calculate the present trend. The Federal Energy Administration says that it will run about 2.8 per cent a year if oil prices stay in their present range. Industry already is shifting to more efficient equipment in response to more costly fuel.

But those savings are offset by the growth of the American population - and it is growing most rapidly in the age groups of the youngsters getting their driving licenses, buying their first cars, marrying and setting up households.

Even if the FEA is right and the total growth of energy holds at around 2.8 per cent a year, the United States would double its demand for energy by the end of the century. The financial and environmental risks alone are prohibitive.

The FEA thinks that the rate could be held as low as 2 per cent a year by firm attention to conservation. Other students of the subject think that it could be held even lower.

The wait-and-see period seems to be ending. A new administration is about to take office. The political climate in this country favors a coherent policy and governments abroad are pressing Washington to start making decisions.