THE STRATEGIC PETROLEUM Reserve falls further and further behind schedule. The reserve, you may recall, was an ideal born in the aftermath of the Arab oil embargo five years ago and formally established by Congress three years ago-the one part of the 1975 energy act that just about everybody supported. The law grandly commands the reserve to contain 150 million barrels of oil by a date that is, in fact, next Friday. When President Carter came to office, he signified his approval of the reserve by raising that goal to 250 million barrels by the end of this. Thos are spendid standards and goals. But, in the chilly and unsentimental world of reality, how are things actually going?

Well, unfortunately, there have been difficulties. The plan-a very good plan-was to put these enormous amounts of oil in the underground caverns that are to be found along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Most of all the caverns are full of salt water. Getting rid of the salt water has proved, for a variety of engineering and environmental reasons, unexpectedly difficult. In August, when we last addressed the question in this space, there were only 40 million barrels of oil in storage, but the Department of Energy was categorically promising 125 million barrels by the end of the year-of January at the latest. As it is working out, there are now about 60 million barrels in storage and, as you can see, the total is not rising very rapidly. By the year's end, the amount of oil underground will be less than half the legal requirement and about one-fourth the initial euphoric Carter target.

The moral to this sad story is that, once again, not all good ideas turn out to be quick or easy to carry out. Until the past few months, both Congress and the administration have viewed the process of building reserves solely as a matter of money and will power. The project was swept up in that atmosphere of gung-ho, can-do enthusiasm that is one of the more attractive American traits-but one that periodically gets the country into serious trouble when, as in the present case, it is accompanied by years of poor administration.

According to the plan, the reserves would come into play in the event of any serious interruption of the flow of imported oil. At a word from Washington, great pumps would begin lifting the oil out of the caverns into the national network of pipelines so rapidly and smoothly that the refineries would never feel a thing. In view of the situation in Iran, it is worth observing that the 60 million barrels of oil now in storage represent less than one week's imports into this country. It is an amount so small, in relation to national requirements, that the Energy Department has not yet even installed the pumps to retrieve it.

The strategic reserve is no substitute for a policy of fuel conservation in the United States-a more careful and more rigorous policy than the present one. There is a tendency, in Washington and around the country, to argue that, with all the oil in storage, there is no real need to do all those painful and unpopular things, like raising fuel taxes and prices to cut consumption. That's simply wrong. The rserve, as it is increased, will provide valuable protection to the American economy against sudden crises. But no reserve can protect the country against the consequences of letting its dependence on Middle Eastern supplies drift upward. That would be true if the reserves were on schedule. And they are many months behind.