AMIDST ITS QUARRELS and confusion, the Senate Energy Committee's hearing the other day summarized with unpleasant accuracy the present state of national policy. Secretary of Energy James R. Schlesinger, bathed in television lights, pointed out that the country in recent weeks has set still another record in oil consumption. Voluntary conservation, he said, does not appear to be very effective. Abroad, the shortages created by the Iranian revolution are again sending prices spinning wildly upward. What to do? Mr. Schlesinger suggested shifting some of the nation's electricity load from generators that use oil to others that run on coal and uranium. Some power plants can be converted from oil to natural gas. Perhaps it will also be necessary, Mr. Schlesinger added, to require people by law to turn down their thermostats. But Congress has not yet even begun to consider the bill that would create public authority over private thermostats.
The disruptions in the Iranian oil fields began at the end of last October. You might wonder why, four and a half months later, the administration and Congress are still debating possible responses. The answer tells you something about the current style of American politics.
In October, the endlessly compromised energy bill had just been enacted after 18 months of the most intense struggle, and nobody wanted to embark on still further measures. Besides, there was a chance that the strikes in the Iranian oil fields might soon end. By January it was clear that the strikes would not end soon. But President Carter likes to deal with one thing at a time, and in January he was devoting his attention to inflation.
Mr. Carter had tentatively scheduled an energy speech in February, but it was to be mainly devoted to the long-term prospects for solar power. With the shortterm prospects for oil becoming increasingly bleak, the White House decided that the solar speech would be illtimed, and it dropped the idea. Instead, it began to consider a different kind of speech addressing the immediate prospect of a worldwide oil shortage.
But that led to a deep dispute within the administration over whether to lift oil price ceilings, and whether to relax air-pollution standards. Only the president could resolve those questions, and the president was suddenly plunged back into the Mideast peace negotiations. When last Monday was originally chosen as the date for Mr. Schlesinger to testify before the Energy Committee, both the administration and the senators expected the president by that time to have set out his position in a message to the nation. Mr. Schlesinger was then to have filled in the details. But with the president in the Middle East and the the basic energy issues still wide-open, the secretary and the senators were left to talk, once again, in generalities. The one hopeful note was the apparent agreement of most of the committee that they may have to act swiftly in the months ahead. Now Mr. Carter is back, and there is again talk of an energy speech before the end of the month.
Some of the coming stringency can be absorbed, as Mr. Schlesinger said, by shifting here and there from oil to other fuels. But it is more important than ever to begin to lift oil price controls, gradually and steadily, and to increase substantially the taxes on both crude oil and gasoline. That is the one safe and sure way to cut oil imports. Those new taxes might well be used to balance cuts in other federal taxes. The other obvious possibility is to permit the use of high-sulfer oil and coal to replace the increasingly scarce low-sulfur oil. Sulfur in the atmosphere is a poison demonstrably harmful to the people who breathe it. Of all the choices now before the president and Congress, higher prices and taxes on oil and gasoline are clearly the most desirable. Conversely, massive reductions in air-quality standards will prove the most expensive and the most dangerous.