President Carter's stated energy goals are at once unequivocal and elusive.

By 1985 the President would like to slash the annual energy growth rate by more than half, to less than 2 per cent. Last year, energy demand grew by 4.5 per cent.

The most optimistic conversation goal ever stated by a Ford or Nixon administration official was Federal Energy Administrator Frank Zarb, who called for a 2.5 per cent annual growth rate by 1985.

To achieve his goal, it is likely that the President will have to, as he said near the end of his somber message, "call for stricter conversation measures if we fall behind."

What is essential, however, is that Carter has committed the United States to turning around its continued low standing in energy efficiency in comparison to other industrialized countries. A report by the International Energy Agency last year ranked the United States next to last among 18 industrialized countries in energy efficiency.

Carter's comparison with Japan and Sweden has been used for years by U.S. energy analysts to promote a national conservation program.

At least one of those energy analysts, S. David Freeman, who headed the Ford Foundation energy policy study two years ago, had a major hand in crafting the Carter energy plan.

The greatest dilemma Carter faces is how to slash the rate of increase in energy consumption by more than one half over the next eight years without throwing the economy into disarray.

During the postwar era, the growth in annual energy demand has paralleled the rise and fall of U.S. gross national product, the sum of our national economic output.

"While Carter and his advisers agree that, as he said last night, "conservation is the quickest, cheapest, most practical source of energy," they must come up with a plan which leaves the economy intact.

Carter's second critical goal is a reduction in oil imports to 6 million barrels a day by 1985, which would be almost 2 million less than the United States has recently been importing.

In contrast, Ford in his Feb. 26, 1976, energy message called for a stiffer oil import reduction - "between 3 and 5 million barrels a day."

Unlike Ford's vaunted "energy independence message," however, Carter's is a more comprehensive conservation package which at least starts the United States toward achieving his reduction in imports.

That goal, however, may prove every bit as elusvie as his conservation goals.

U.S. oil imports surged last year to 42 per cent of oil imports - in February they ran over 50 per cent - from 26 per cent to the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

More important, imports from the Arab states in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries have doubled - to 22 per cent in 1976 from 10 per cent in 1974.

Carter's message did not underscore the outlook for imports from the oil-rich Persian Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, the largest OPEC producer.

Currently the Saudis are producing over 9 million barrels of oil a day and, if they choose, could increase production to 15 million barrels a day by the mid-1980s and as much as 20 million later.

Carter's program and in particular his goal of sharply reduced imports, is targeted at reducing U.S. vulnerability to an embargo.

Privately, the Saudi maintain that we are unlikely to achieve such a sharp reduction of imports, and suggest that the United States will be importing at least 3.5 million barrels a day by 1982 from Saudi Arabia alone.

While a national conservation effort is the key to holding imports down, the substitution of domestic energy resources - especially coal and nuclear power - offer the surest means of reducing imports.

Carter, like Nixon and Ford before him, has called for increasing coal production to 1 billion tons a year by 1985, and proposed a mandatory coal conversion program for industry and utilities.

Today, however, coal is among America's most beleaguered industries, facing a spectrum of environmental, economic, technological and transportation obstacles. As an illustration, the National Coal Association recently revised its 1977 coal production figures downward by 25 million tons to a range of between 650 and 682 million. Last year, coal production was 665 million tons - not much different from production in the late 1940s.

Nuclear power, which Carter referred to gingerly in his message, is similarly faced with technological, environmental and regulatory problems.

During the election campaign Carter said nuclear power would be used as "a last resort." Given the tone of Carter's message, and burgeoning plans in James R. Schlesinger's White House energy policy staff to accelerate nuclear power development, it is increasingly clear that Carter will push for widescale application of conventional reactor technology. Like a shift to coal, this faces many obstacles.

One further dimension of the Carter message that has already drawn some congressional fire is his premise that "prices should generally reflect the true replacement cost of energy."

This approach to energy pricing is by no means new. Many in the world share Carter's view, including Prince Saud Faisal, who is now Saudi Arabia's foreign minister.