WHILE THE Bush administration doesn't like the idea of energy taxes to enforce conservation, neither does it like any of the alternatives for saving energy. With the help of a threatened filibuster, it has managed to beat down a Senate bill that would have required the automobile industry to make more efficient cars. That leaves the country with nothing but the market -- that is, higher prices -- to balance supply and demand.
That's not the worst way to handle it, in the short run. At least there won't be the gasoline lines and shortages that developed in 1974 and again in 1979, because there are none of the price controls that created them. People will cut down their driving as gasoline begins to eat larger holes in their pockets. The cost of crude oil has already risen 50 cents a gallon since last spring. That implies a retail price in the range of $1.60 a gallon for unleaded regular gas. Since supplies are going to tighten further through the fall, according to some of the forecasts, prices may well go even higher.
President Bush has decided to throw onto the market some of the oil in the strategic reserves. His purpose, he says, is to push the price down a bit and warn speculators that they aren't betting on a sure thing. But the president continues to avoid any suggestion to Americans that oil consumption needs to fall or that the price rise is reflecting anything more than speculative manipulation.
Going heavily into the oil reserves now is not a good idea. They need to be held for a much more ominous possibility than an increase of 50 cents a gallon in gasoline prices. The Persian Gulf oil fields and loading facilities are very vulnerable to military attack. The strategic reserves are the country's insurance against further losses of production there that could create a truly drastic emergency.
But this is the time, when everyone's attention is focused on the need, to begin making the gradual changes necessary to protect the economy and the daily life of the country from further squeezes on the oil line. The United States will never be entirely independent of foreign oil supplies, and it doesn't need to be. But it can cut its requirements to a point at which political upheavals in the Middle East will not automatically throw the country into recession.
The world is now going through the third in what is obviously a continuing series of oil crises and disruptions. The countries that foresee these swings in supplies and prepare for them will sail through them with little damage. Those that lack the political courage to think ahead will continue to pay heavily.