President Carter, approaching some of the most politically crucial decisions of his term, returned to the White House from Camp David last night after a day-long meeting on energy and economic issues with his principal domestic policy and political advisers.
White House press secretary Jody Powell said Carter made no decisions during the more than eight-hour meeting at the Maryland presidential retreat. The meeting focused on energy policy options and proposals to strengthen the administration's antiinflation program.
Powell said Carter is expected to make several decisions on energy policy by about the end of the month and to announce them in a speech.
In the meantime, the press secretary said, the president will consult with members of Congress -- beginning with a regularly scheduled breakfast with the congressional leadership today -- on steps to deal with the oil shortage and the continued high rate of inflation.
Powell said Carter is interested primarily in exploring the extent of congressional support or opposition to the steps being considered by the White House.
"Some options which may be attractive either are feasible only with appropriate congressional action or cooperation, or would be most effective only with congressional cooperation and support," he said.
Powell added, "Obviously, there are no easy or cheap answers to the problems we face. The trade-offs all along the line are extremely difficult."
The unusual Camp David meeting, which began at 8:30 a.m. yesterday and ended just before 5 p.m., was clearly an attempt by the president and his advisers to sort through some of the inherent conflicts in Carter's two top domestic priorities. The president is pledged to raise U.S. oil prices to curb consumption and deal with the oil shortage, while at the same time bringing inflation under control.
Steps to raise oil prices, however, would have an inflationary impact, working against Carter's goal of capping inflation.
These "trade-offs" that Powell spoke about also would have political repercussions. Measures to raise oil prices might be popular in producing states such as Texas, but would anger consumers in energy-dependent regions such as New England, site of some of the first crucial presidential primaries next year.
The most pressing and politically explosive issue the president is weighing are plans pressed by Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger to end oil price controls. Energy Department officials say that ending domestic oil price controls, which the president could do by June, would add $15 billion to oil industry revenues and as much as 1 percent to the inflation rate.
Senior administration officials, however, say that the president's top political adviser, Hamilton Jordan, and domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat have counseled Carter that total decontrol in June is politically "unworkable," according to one aide.
In addition to phasing out oil price controls, Carter also reviewed proposals from Schlesinger to allow Alaskan oil exports or swaps, to call for mandatory lower thermostat settings, to end crude oil and refined product tariffs and to stop the mandatory phaseout of lead additives in gasoline.
Schlesinger has argued that these measures will increase oil production and reduce consumption, and, to some extent, shelter the consumer from inevitably higher energy prices.
The outlines of the most favored option, according to Energy Department officials, would call for keeping oil price controls through this year and possibly as late as September 1981, when the current regulation authority expires.
Senior officials agree that some sort of tax to prevent windfall profits for oil producers will be necessary to sell the plan to Congress. One tax being considered would be imposed on industry revenues from additional world oil price increases imposed by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. This tax would most likely be set at the current OPEC price level or an increase the cartel may announce at a meeting next Monday.
One option favored by Schlesinger and others would call for the accelerated decontrol of "oil oil" -- production from wells drilled before 1972 -- now selling for about $5.80 per barrel, compared to the $14.50-a-barrel OPEC price.