A key Department of Energy official yesterday called for an investigation into charges that jobbers for major oil companies were "blackmailing gas station dealers" into limiting their hours of operation and restricting other activities.

Tina Hobson, director of consumer affairs at the DOE, said she is forwarding information she has received about such activity to the inspector general's office for investigation.

"I'm asking the IG (inspector general) to check these charges out to see how they result in the undermining of DOE regulations and allocations," Hobson said.

She said she would not talk publicly about the allegations she has received because "like a reporter, I must protect my sources."

But she did say that the allegations concerned problems "around the country," and that they have, until now, received only a "low priority" from the DOE.

Meanwhile, Sen. Howard Metzenbaum praised Hobson for a recent speech accusing both the oil industry and the DOE with failure to explain the gasoline crisis to the American public. In that speech, Hobson said her agency and the industry had basically lost their credibility because of their inability to explain the crisis.

"For two years, I and others have been charging that the Department of Energy under James Schlesinger has been constantly confusing, misleading and ignoring the American public," Merzenbaum said. "In response, time and time again, we've been answered with denials and double talk."

"Finally, someone in a position of authority at DOE has chosen to tell it like it is," he added. "Ms. Hobson deserves commendation and I can only hope that more DOE officials will now have the courage to speak out and admit that much of the blame for the current energy problem rests at the DOE itself."