AMONG ITS territorial aggressions, the State Department has now recaptured control of international energy policy from the Energy Department. That little coup has been accomplished quietly. But it carries large implications for the American response to the next energy crisis.
When will that crisis arrive? No one can say, but experience suggests that it will come without warning. The damage that it inflicts can be limited by the skill with which the national response is managed. Historically, the State Department's record in this area is not a reassuring one.
It's not a matter of personalities, or personal competence. The State Department ought not to be the country's policy-maker and negotiator on energy for the same reason that it ought not to be permitted to dominate the talks with Japan on imported autos. State is not well equipped to manage matters that are preponderently the country's internal business.
The Energy Department was created four years ago precisely because the country had learned, through long and expensive experience, that it needed a mechanism to pull together the internal and external rough beginning,; the mechanism has recently begun to work effectively. If you doubt it, consider for the moment the current energy crisis that isn't.
That's the crisis that might have followed the outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq last September. At the time, sober people foresaw a worldwide panic and oil shortage that would bring gasoline lines to this country by early spring -- as the Iranian revolution had two years earlier.
Why hasn't that occurred? Part of it has been luck, and part has been the Saudis' decision to keep their production high. But a very large part has been the sophisticated response of the oil-imported countries, led by the United States. They agreed not to repeat the mistake of 1979 of making another frantic grab for the spot market, driving prices wildly upward again. They agreed to begin drawing down reserves immediately instead and to see that their oil companies cooperated.
It worked. The rise in oil prices was very modest, compared with 1979, and now there's a slight oversupply of oil. The American part in this triumph of good sense required skillful coordination of agreements abroad with the management, at home, of reserves that were entirely in private ownership. The industry did indeed cooperate, including a lot of small companies that the State Department has never heard of.
That's why it's disquieting to see Secretary of State Haig sweep the international responsibilities out of the flaccid hands of Energy Secretary Edwards. In Mr. Haig's defense, it could be truthfully argued that Dr. Edwards has shown little interest or competence in foreign energy policy. It could also be argued that Mr. Haig's trespass is not unique since, while he was taking over part of Dr. Edwards' job, the secretary of the interior, Mr. Watt, was assuming most of the rest of it. Mr. Watt seems to be fully in control of oil and gas policy.
What does that leave Dr. Edwards with? The nuclear programs, and a few odds and ends. Currently, nobody seems to care. But at the first tweak on that oil line from the Persian Gulf, the Reagan administration is going to see why its predecessors decided that they needed a strong Department of Energy.