Washington, like all large American cities, has a special stake in the solution of the nation's energy problems. All Americans will be hurt if we fail to develop our national energy resources and continue to rely so heavily on unstable foreign energy sources. But cities such as Washington, where large numbers of people are concentrated, will suffer the most. The energy shortages in the 1970s hit cities the hardest--in terms of the longest gasoline lines, widespread factory closings and large numbers of poor people unable to heat their homes and apartments sufficiently.

Everyone who cares about the cities should be concerned about two things: saving energy and producing energy.

Americans are saving energy. Energy use during 1980 was down almost 4 percent from 1979, and 1981 energy use (first quarter) was down more than 9 percent from the first quarter of 1980. Here in the District, motor gasoline sales have fallen from 243.2 million gallons in 1975 to 221.8 million gallons in 1978, and then to 171.4 million gallons in 1980.

Energy consumption is down for two reasons. Many people are trying harder to save energy. Of greater impact, increased energy prices have induced consumers to limit their energy consumption and eliminate wasteful energy uses. People are saving money by saving energy. Price has unquestionably been the strongest incentive for conservation and efficiency.

But higher prices obviously are a painful burden for the poorer people of Washington or any other city where gasoline and heating oil are basic necessities--and the concept of goverment assistance should be supported.

The country also must find and produce more energy domestically. Despite the progress we've made in saving energy, conservation alone cannot solve our energy problems. Forecasts show that, even with continued conservation, this country will need more total energy in 1990 than it did in 1980. And as our energy use increases, oil imports will grow unless domestic energy production from all sources also increases.

The United States has made some important progress in the last two years in producing more energy at home. As a direct result of crude oil decontrol, petroleum drilling activity is at all-time, record-high levels.

Despite today's progress, the United States must assume that it will face interruptions of foreign oil supplies as well as possible sudden price increases in the future. More than one-third of the nation's oil--down from nearly one-half--still comes from other countries.

We cannot reduce this heavy reliance on foreign oil unless we produce economically all forms of U.S. energy --oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, synthetic fuels and renewable energy sources. We do not have the luxury of picking and choosing among these various energy sources. One means of regaining energy security, through reduced oil imports, is to develop synthetic fuels in the most efficient way possible.

We should move ahead now to develop a synthetic fuels industry. It takes many years to experiment with, design and develop synthetic fuel processes and facilities--or, for that matter, to bring into widespread use any improved technology. Various companies are currently engaged in researching and testing a number of different methods to produce oil and gas from coal, and to convert oil shale into oil for processing into gasoline, heating oil and other petroleum products. Other companies are moving into the commercial stage of shale oil production and coal gasification. But unless synthetic fuel experimentation and commercialization moves forward now, these production targets will not be met by the end of this decade.

We can reduce our heavy dependence on foreign oil by half over the 1980s. We need:

* increased access to government lands for energy exploration and development;

* policies that allow us to meet our environmental goals and energy needs;

* phased elimination of the restrictions and controls on natural gas prices, so that all petroleum is freed from government constraints;

* a predictable, steady course for nuclear power.

If we make these decisions, Washington and other metropolitan regions --the entire country--will continue to turn the corner toward a better, more secure energy future.

The writer is director of the Synfuels Unit of the American Petroleum Institute.