ENERGY POLICYis always extraordinarily difficult for this country, with its tradition of cheap fuel at odds with its rising sensitivity to the environment. The Reagan administration never thought it needed a policy, since it had the very good luck to govern in a time of falling oil prices. Its successors, warier and more prudent, have been working for some time toward a more forceful position. A list of options on energy is to go to President Bush this week for final decisions.
The basic choices are between conservation and supply -- using energy more efficiently, and finding more of it. The country will need a combination of the two, but there are not many subjects more heavily freighted with ideology or more densely surrounded by lobbies pushing to the extremes. The most reasonable and useful way to hold down oil imports, for example, continues to be a stiff tax on gasoline. But that comes under fierce attack from both the anti-tax right and the regulatory left.
In the discussions at the White House, there has been the usual talk of leaving energy to the free market. But the markets in energy, more than most, are heavily influenced by government policy, intentionally or otherwise. Most of the world's oil is produced by government-owned companies, and in this country it is burned under conditions set by the environmental laws. The purpose of an energy policy is to impose some degree of harmony on these various purposes and to avoid unpleasant surprises.
The large American army encamped in the Saudi desert gives a special point to Mr. Bush's deliberations on energy. Dispatching troops was the right response to Iraq's aggression, but perhaps more is required. A reduction in the industrial countries' demand for imported oil will make it harder to threaten the supply. It's important to back up the military operations in the Persian Gulf by holding down oil consumption here in the United States.
This emerging energy policy has to serve a country whose economy has once again been rocked by sudden increases in oil prices but whose willingness to pay for a cleaner environment has just been demonstrated in the passage of the Clean Air Act. Those two events can usefully serve to give the president and his advisers a sense of direction. This country has learned a lot about energy policy from the series of oil crises that began 17 years ago. Mr. Bush now needs to put that painful experience to work on a program that can work simultaneously to protect the atmosphere, the economy and the national security.