IN GILBERT AND Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance" there is a scene in which a general sends the police force to do battle with the pirates. The policemen sing -- with a "Tarantara!" here and there -- "We go!" They keep singing "We go! . . . Yes, forward on the foe!" until the general observes, "Yes, but you don't go!"

Throughout the 1970s we heard from three administrations that they were off to fight the energy problem and to end the piracy of the international oil cartel. As they trumpeted "Tarantara!" with varying degrees of certainty and uncertainty, oil prices shot up, inflation rose, and oil imports increased. The oil-exporting nations tightened their grip on the American economy and increased their influence on American foreign policy.

One of the most direct means of curbing overdependence on oil imports is to impose quotas or tariffs. More than 20 years ago we had quotas on foreign fuel oil. They were imposed in 1959 during the Eisenhower administration -- but only because foreign oil was then cheaper than domestic oil, and many U.S. oil companies wanted to cheap oil kept out. Ironically, the quotas were lifted in 1973 -- under the Nixon administration -- just when they were needed to combat price boosts.

By that time we had used up lots of American oil, which could have been saved, and the rapidly rising world prices were a boon rather than a threat to U.S. oil companies.

Since the 1920s, oil companies have cried "Shortage!" whenever it suited their purposes -- sometimes to help them gain access to foreign oil deposits, sometimes to keep out foreign oil, sometimes to import oil at high prices, sometimes to freeze out independent companies, sometimes for fear of gluts which would lower prices.

Oil companies have always found patriotic reasons for whatever they recommended. For example, sometimes it was in the national interest to keep our American oil in the ground. On the other hand, sometimes it was in the national interest to keep our American wells pumping away. The one consistent interest of the oil companies has been to achieve maximum prices and profit.