The synthetic fuels bandwagon is rolling.
A massive program, launched with war-like urgency, to produce synthetic fuels from coal, oil shale and grain holds the promise of salvation from the nation's bondage to the oil cartel, or so claim a growing number of public figures.
With an abrupt, remarkable change in the previous attitudes that have partly hamstrung government efforts to get a synfuels industry moving, members of Congress are jumping on the suddenly popular bandwagon.
As energy prices soar, gas lines lengthen, and Detroit finds itself on thb brink of serious trouble because of hoards of unsold big cars, the bandwagon's goal - freedom from both the economic and political clutches of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries - certainly would be lovely.
But all the people waving their arms and shouting have little to say about the full cost of reaching this goal. Big as they are, the numbers that have been mentioned - $100 billion, $200 billion, $250 billion - are only part of the final price tag.
The final cost may well include not just more federal spending, but also major exemptions from air and water pollution requirements, added inflation, and dangerous political and social conflict.
It might all be worth it, both in terms of lower future oil prices and the greater national security that less reliance on OPEC would produce.
The question, however, is why anyone should reasonably expect our political institutions and politicians to be able to grasp the energy nettle now in the context of a debate over synthetic fuels when they haven't done so in the five years since the Arab oil embargo.
Take, for instance, the Energy Supply Act legislation introduced last week by Sen. Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, on behalf of himself, 15 other Democrats and 4 republicans.
Its purpose is to speed the development and use of every type of non-nuclear alternative to imported oil, ranging from windmills to oil shale to gasohol.
"Working together, we can find the answers and mount a program that will provide the nation with an adequate - and secure - energy supply while at the same time protecting our environment and strengthening our economy," Jackson declared confidently.
That statement doesn't mention painful tradeoffs. There's no mention that decisions about the future of nuclear power in the United States will affect the size of the synfuels industry needed to make a given dent on OPEC. No mention that plans for pilot plants for processing oil shale are almost totally tangled in a web of environmental restrictions. No mention that the water in most of the Western river basins, where both the big oil shale and coal deposits are located, already is overallocated to present users, or else has tight restrictions on withdrawals for industrial use.
Will the people of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana be willing to accept the potentially large environmental and social burdens of creating a mammoth synfuels industry in their states?
One of the goals of Jackson's new bill is to speed dramatically the process of clearing environmental and other permit hurdles for the "priority energy projects" picked by the secretary of Energy. And the bill specifically would exempt them from the strictures of the National Environmental Policy Act.
Although the environmental act often has been a major tool of environmentalists in killing or delaying many energy projects, it only requires that an environmental impact statement be prepared and that policymakers consider that impact in making their decisions. The act has nothing to do with setting pollution standards or enforcing them.
And Jackson's bill goes on to declare that nothing in it "shall be construed as affecting the obligations of any person" building an oil shale plant under its provisions "to comply with federal and state environmental, land use, water and health and safety laws and regulations or to obtain applicable federal and state permits, licenses and certificates."
The environmental conflict is still there, in spades. And in the background loom the difficult choices about nuclear energy.
Anotherproblem Jackson didn't mention is price. Yet Congress for years has tied itself in knots keeping Americans from having to pay the full cost of the energy they use. Jackson himself is just on e of many members who oppose decontrol of crude oil prices.
If synthetic fuels turn out to cost $25 or $30 a barrel of more, will consumers be asked to pay that much or will the government - taxpayers of all sorts - subsidize half of that of more?
These are only a few of the serious questions that will have to be resolved on the way to creating a major synfuels industry.
But that hardly means that nothing should be attempted. On the contrary, as one high Carter administration official put it, "I'm really glad all this is bubbling to the top. Now maybe some of the choices will be more in the open."
He is skeptical, though.
Synthetic fuels are understandably attractive. The price of oil has risen so far so fast that they no longer seem impossibly out of reach economically. And above all, their new-found champions offer them as a final, complete answer to the stain OPEC has left on America's national pride.
But keep those "ifs" in mind, along with these thoughts from a forthcoming book being published by Resources for the Future called "Energy in America's Future, The Choices Before Us":
"There are basic divisions in this society regarding energy. They involve disagreement about the kind of future people want, about the prospects for attaining different futures, and about the distribution of the benefits, costs and risks from acquiring and using energy.
"The nature of these disagreements is much broader than those encompassed specifically within the energy sector, but the events which forced energy decisions to the fore have focused these conflicts on energy matters. Energy has become the testing ground for conflict over broader social choices."
More money, more effort of all kinds should be poured into synthetic fuels. A bigger beginning needs to be made. It is unrealistic to think it will be the answer to OPEC, however, certainly not within the next decade or so.
And if the U.S. deludes itself into thinking that it can be, more time will be lost in dealing with other aspects of the energy dilemma that are just as urgent, such as getting energy prices right.