THE ADMINISTRATION now enters its third year without a serious national energy policy. The war in the Mideast, having to do in part with oil, only underscores the lack. National energy demand is not among the things the administration has shown itself willing to attack.
World supplies of oil and gas may be larger than currently thought; they still are finite, and not enough are in this country. There is, of course, a need to try to increase domestic production as well as to shift to alternative fuels. But there remains also a need to conserve, for the sake of the environment as well as the economy and national security.
There are two ways to induce conservation of oil and its byproducts: raise the price or regulate the use. The first is the more efficient, but both should probably be tried; the problem is that serious. Transportation is the likeliest, though not only, place to look for savings. The auto is the source of waste.
The budget agreement between the president and Congress last fall included a nickel-a-gallon increase in the gasoline tax. That was a small step in the right direction. There should be further increases once the recession is over. They would strengthen the government's finances, finance other needed government programs and at the same time deter consumption. The regressive effects could be otherwise offset. No other energy tax would accomplish as much as simply. The companion proposals that have been made to require better auto mileage would help as well.
The administration has resisted such steps on philosophical grounds -- the view that markets are wiser than governments -- as well as for the obvious political reasons. It has not wanted to impose the burden. The Energy Department has been at work on a national policy statement for a year and a half. The work continues in part because of internal disputes on the question of curtailing demand, and it remains unclear what legislative form it may finally take, or when. Leaders of both parties in Congress have acknowledged the need for a balanced energy policy, but Congress will not produce such a policy on its own. Little will happen until an administration leads the way.