Despite President Carter's exhortations to save energy, Americans burned gasoline this summer at record rates.

"The public is not paying attention," President Carter said last July in reflecting on the energy conservation.

Gasoline demand this summer rose to the highest level since the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, up 5.8 per cent in August alone over the same month last year.

"There is very little hard evidence that there has been any particular effort on the part of people to save gasoline," says Federal Energy Administrator John F. O'Leary.

Imports are also up. Days before the peak driving season ended, FEA announced that the United States imported 8.8 million barrels of crude oil a day during the first half of the year - 31 per cent more than the same period in 1976. The United States is now spending $3.8 billion a month to import almost half the oil Americans consume.

Carter's energy policymakers are troubled by these figures, which offer added evidence of a summer poll's finding that only one-third of the American people believe the U.S. energy outlook is a severe as the President claims.

O'Leary acknowledges that this attitude, along with the surge in summer driving, poses a threat to the President's energy package now before the Senate. The problem, he says, is that "what the administration is trying to do is not targeted to what happens this summer and winter."

This summer motorists missed Carter's "moral equivalent of war" to save energy. Instead they found - at least in some parts of the country - what the head of the National Congress of Petroleum Retailers, Charles Binsted, calls the equivalent of "oldtime gas wars."

"The major oil companies were pushing product and pushing it hard," Binsted says, pointing to rental incentives and "outright pressure in other areas" reported this summer by many of the 60,000 station operators he represents. Shell and Sun Oil were two companies, he says, that offered lower rents to stations that exceeded their gasoline sales targets.

The trend toward "gas only" stations and self-service islands in many parts of the country are other signs of the competition among companies in the lucrative gasoline market.

Many experts like Standard Oil Co. of Ohio's Don Maxwell say that summer gasoline demand slightly exceeded expectations. "I think people are driving the way they would have whether Carter said anything or not," Maxwell adds.

To a great extent the administration acknowledges this. While Americans were setting new driving records, Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger often opened his congressional testimony by remarking that, "The American people do not understand shortages."

Binsted offers another reason for the failure of conservation measures at the gasoline pump: "How can people really believe there is a shortage of energy the way we are coming at them trying to sell it?"

The threat of energy shortage this winter, however, is something Schlesinger's staff has been preparing for since July when FEA Deputy Administrator David Bardin was named to head the winter energy emergency plans task force - or WEEP, as it is known in the administration, WEEP was set up to monitor energy supplies and to gauge federal and state preparedness for a bad winter.

"A bad combination of conditions could test us severely," Bardin warns, stressing that his group is preparing contingency plans for the worst case.

Overall though, he and others expect problems in only two areas: some shortages of natural gas for industrial and business users served by some interstate pipelines, and a shortage of coal for electrical utilities if there is a prolonged strike when the United Mine Workers union contract expires in December.

The major question mark at this point, Bardin adds, is the weather.

Last winter's cold snap - the worst since 1918 - temporarily threw 1.2 million Americans out of work. Donald Gilman, who oversees the National Weather Service's long-range projections, says the odds of having a winter this year like last year's are about 30 to 1.

A problem facing Schlesinger's contingency planners is the admitted limitation of long-range weather forecasting. Says Gilman: "It is a chancy thing." FEA's Barry Yaffee goes a step further, calling the long-term forecasts " a black art."

FEA is more confident of the measures of projected energy supplies. So far FEA says that inventories of heating oil and residual oil used by utilities and industry are higher than they have been for years.

The immediate threats of shortages this winter - as last winter - are in propane and natural gas.

Propane, or bottled gas, is used in the midwestern farming states and in rural parts of the Southeast for home heating, and in soem farm and industrial processes. Propane stocks are still below what FEA officials say they should be. O'Leary and Bardin ae urging major propane importers and suppliers to build up their inventories.

Natural gas is another story.

Federal Power Commission officials are already projecting a shortage of about 170 billion cubic feet of gas - liveries - in interstate markets. If there are curtailments, they will affect industrial users first. Nevertheless, FPC Chairman Charles Curtis said that even with weather 10 per cent cooler than usual, shortages would not affect residential or business customers.

Curtis's staff has flagged six major interstate pipeline companies that could have curtailments of up to 48 per cent. The larges: of these are El Paso Natural Gas, Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Co., United Gas Pipeline, and Tennessee Gas Pipeline.

FPC's Joseph Solters says that unless the weather is as frigid as last year "measures are available, in my judgment, to wipe this impact out." These include arranging gas sales from intrastate markets and swapping gas with suppliers with surpluses.

Coal poses a less certain threat. Wildcat strikes in Appalachia, along with severe winter weather earlier this year, have forced the industry to lower projected year-end production from 700 million tons to 665 million tons - the same amount mined last years.

National Coal Association President Carl Bagge said there are 134 million tons of coal in stockpiles, enough to meet winter demand even with lower production. However, other industry executives warn that a crippling coal strike starting in December could reduce the stockpile.

Aside from eying fuel supplies, Bardin's group has been working closely with the National Governors' Conference to coordinate energy emergency planning at the state level.