THE COUNTRY'S next energy policy comes in two pieces, and President Carter sent the first one to Congress yesterday.It's the federal reorganization plan, and Mr. Carter wants to get it in place before he brings out the substance of the policy on April 20. Any reorganization on this scale starts an intense fight among the insiders - the lobbyists and the lawyers who like things the way they are, congressional subcommittees jealous of the prerogatives, bureaucrats who don't care to be moved from their accustomed lairs. Mr. Carter wants, wisely, to get through the kind of infighting before the main event starts in late April. It's the April message that will get directly into the great public questions of pricing, energy taxes, mandatory conservation and - to use a term more cherished in the abstract than in the specific - sacrifice.
This reorganization plan is manifestly and urgently necessary. It is not in itself a policy, but it provides the machinery for making decisions and carrying them out.It is the plan that both of the past two Presidents knew in their hearts was essential, and that they occasionally, half-heartedly, attempted to promote. Continued indecision on fuel is wantonly dangerous to this country and to its prosperity. Indecision in Washington is dangerous to all the industrial nations, among which the United States is the richest and necessarily the leader.
It is intolerable to leave public policy scattered in small fragments all over Washington, with each agency pursuing its own dinky purposes in disregard of all the others. It's not that this country has no energy policy; the real trouble is that we have too many, all of them products of different times and circumstances. One agency keeps the price of natural gas low - so low that no one who can get it will use anything else, and the gas shortage has become endemic. The result is that a high price of a different sort is paid by working people who are laid off from their jobs in winter shortages; there were more than a million of them at one point last month. Another agency keeps domestic oil much more expensive than gas or coal, but cheaper than foreign oil. This grotesque system actually subsidizes imports of oil. As long as the country brings in foreign oil at $14 a barrel and sells it on the domestic market at $11, Americans are going to use a lot more of it than is good for them. Meanwhile the heavy end of the federal energy research budget goes into nuclear technologies for the next century, while the development of clean-burning coal systems for the 1980s continues at the usual languid pace.
Mr. Carter spoke feelingly last week of the "horrible conglomeration of confusion in the energy field." His reorganization plan would make it possible to hammer one national policy out of a contentious and self-defeating multitude. E Pluribus Unum, as it says on the nickel.