The good news is that for the last eight months the United States has been engaged - at last - in a serious debate about energy policy. The bad news is that it is the wrong debate.
This debate has been conducted as if the energy problem were a question of domestic politics, separate from the international dimensions that provide its real source. The result has been a search for villains.
Depending upon the view of the participants, the villains are one or more of the following: government bureaucrats, trying to mess up things they don't know about; the oil companies, which allegedly rigged the whole affair in a pursuit of profits; a Naderite plot to bring down capitalism; environmentalists - austere moralists and the spoiled children of the affluent - trying to impose their Granola lifestyles on the rest of the country.
Not one of these groups, however, is really responsible for the grave problems we face. Rather, they are responding to those problems. That does not seem to matter, however, for the ill-tempered and off-center debate goes on. People insist on fighting pre-embargo battles in a post-embargo world. For instance, many people ascribe to the major oil companies a power in the embargo that they in fact lost in 1969-73, the period of the rapid rise of OPEC.
Perhaps the upcoming meeting of OPEC oil ministers will call attention, maybe even in the nick of time, to the real source of the problem: that OPEC has gained control over the international oil market and, for that reason, dominance as well over what we might call the "international energy system."
This dominance poses two basic threats to the Western world. The first is another interruption of supply. That is the more easily perceived of the dangers. Memories of October 1973 are fresh enough.
More difficult to see - and basically overlooked in the debate - are the direct economic costs extracted by OPEC. These include a persistent inflation, an equally persistent recession (in effect, OPEC "taxes" away spending and investment from the Western world, sagging confidence and enormous strains on teh international monetary system.
All this gives OPEC a "veto" over the well-being of the world economy. Because we have been more self-sufficient than the other Western nations although Britain is now becoming the most self-sufficient Western nation necause of the North Sea oil, we have been less conscious of the effects of this veto. The disappearance of lines at the gas pump has lulled AMericans into an underserved sense of complacency. But the choice today is not even between taking a long-term and short-term view of the problem. Rather, it is between taking a backward-term view and looking at the pressures now building up.
For while our debate has been insulated from international realities, our well-being connato so remain. The Western world has experienced four years of deep recession as a result of the OPEC veto. How long can democratic institutions stand up under the strain of such low growth, high unemployment and economic deterioration? While we may be relatively better off than our partners, it is highly unlikely that we can escape the consequences of, say, a serious political crisis in one or more of the Western European countries or an upheaval in the Euro-currency banking system.
The United States does have a central role to play in the protracted crisis. It remains the leader of the Western world, in a sense the organizer of the international order. Moreover, the United States has much more flexibility than any other country, and what it does can have dramatic effect. After all, the United States is to energy consumption what Saudi Arabia is to oil production. We use a third of all the oil used in the world every day. American motorists alone use one-ninth of all the oil used in the world everyday!
If counterpressure is to be applied to the OPEC cartel, then nothing would be more effective more quickly than a solid program of energy conservation in the United States. Yet the opposite has been happening. More than four years have been wasted with such unrealistic visions as "Project Independence." And, in the meantime, our situation has become worse, and we have become implicit allies in holding up the OPEC system. For we have become the most important consumer of OPEC oil. At the time of the 1973 embargo, only a third of our oil was improted. Today it's almost half - most from the OPEC countries.
The Carter administration is the first to come up with a program that would move in the right direction. It si generally a sound plan.
Yet there have been problems in its presentation. First, the talk about "sacrifice" has actually exaggerated the pain of energy conservation. There is much evidence that a sensible program of conservation will cause very little disruption and that it will not require the sacrifices the rhetoric has suggested.
Second, one cannot but help wonder why the administration has not called attention to the basic international realities that created the crisis and require solution. Perhaps it was thought unwise to focus too dirctly on th role of certain key producers, like Saudi Arabia. Since they also happen to be our allies, we want to keep close to them and, in particular, want their assisstance in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Perhaps, also there was an underestimation of the American public - that it would respond only to the exaggerated specter that the world would soon run out of oil.
Whatever the reasons, the omission of the basic issues has helped to turn the debate into a flight to settle old and, in many ways, outdated scores.
What we needs is not a "Project Independence," but a recognition of inter-dependence - a realization that we are in this with the other major industrial countries and that we have to respond together and frame our policies with this in mind. The problem is not the distribution of power and benefits specifically within the United States, but more fundamentally, the survival of the Western world. What is at stake is the worldwide distribution of economic growth. If that could be understood, some of the suspicions on Capitol Hill could be put aside and thus compromises found for the admittedly difficult question involved in framing a workable and affective energy policy for the world's most important consumer of energy.