AMERICAN politicians have learned to detest the very thought of energy policy. It splits parties, it raises tempers and it sets one region of the country against another. Worse, the logic of it leads in a straight line to a heavy tax on gasoline -- which is as deeply unpopular as it is long overdue.
President Carter's elaborate energy policy offered no visible help in the oil crisis of 1979. President Reagan, who had the great good luck to serve in a time of falling oil prices, got along for eight years with no policy at all. President Bush may have hoped to do the same, but now prices are shooting upward once again. He is trying to stay clear of the traps and divisive torments of energy policy in order, among other reasons, to preserve the present broad support behind his stand on Iraq and Kuwait. But events are slowly forcing him toward at least a rudimentary position. So far it's not very promising.
In his press conference yesterday, Mr. Bush said: "The bottom line is that it's going to have to be conservation, it's going to have to be alternative sources, it's going to have to be more hydrocarbon drilling." He hasn't had much to say yet about conservation, for the well-known reason that his fellow citizens are accustomed to wasting energy and they do not welcome the thought of any attempt by their government to change their habits.
Alternative sources of energy are certainly a crucial part of any rational response to disruptions in the oil pipeline. But the administration doesn't seem to have a great deal working there either. As for drilling, the president is pushing the proposals that he made last year for tax breaks to encourage more of it. But that's an extremely expensive way to get very little oil. Oil prices quadrupled, after inflation, between 1973 and 1981. In response the rate of drilling tripled -- but oil production was slightly lower in 1981 than it had been eight years earlier. Oil is getting very hard to find in the United States.
In the absence of policy, what happens? President Reagan was fond of saying that the markets would take care of the energy supply. But the markets are taking care of it now, and that doesn't seem to please people either.
The reality is that only one thing has been effective in encouraging conservation and alternative sources, and that one magical thing is higher prices. The only question is whether those price increases are going to go to oil producers around the world or, in the form of taxes, to public purposes here in this country. That's the question that American politics has been ducking for nearly two decades.