IN RESPONSE to congressional demands, the Carter adminitration drafted four plans for energy conservation. Ungratefully, the Senate Energy Committee has already killed one, and a couple of the survivors are in grave peril. Further committee votes in both House and Senate are scheduled this week.
It's the old story. Everybody's in favour of conservation in general, but no two people can agree on any one specific action. It's always too costly, or too inflationary, or too unfair. The administration, to begin with, was not entirely successful in its struggle to come up with useful ideas. The four plans were the standby plan for gasoline rationing, the regulation of thermostats except in private homes, the standby authority to close gasoline stations on weekends and a reduction in outdoor advertising lights. The four are, respectively, nearly unworkable, largely unenforceable, dangerous and frivolous.
It's the last one, turning down the advertising lights, that the Senate committee has voted down. The savings in power would have been minuscule. The proposal to close filling stations on weekends also deserves to be rejected. It would merely shift the Sunday night traffic jam on the Chesapeake Bay bridge to early Monday morning. That's tolerable, but it would induce a lot of drivers to begin carrying jerry cans of gasoline in the trunks of their cars - as some did during the 1974 Arab oil embargo. That's a serious menace to safety.
The remaining two plans are more substantial. The thermostat rule would go into effect immediately. It would mean temperatures no higher than 65 degrees in winter, and no lower than 80 degrees in summer, in stores, offices, schools, factories, and so forth. If people complied, the savings in imported oil would be great enough to justify the discomfort.
As for rationing, there you have a dilemma. A rationing system is like the income-tax code in the sense that every step toward making it fairer will also make it more complex and labyrinthine. Rationing would go into effect, the White House said, "only as a last resort during a severe petroleum supply emergency." The administration's plan has the virtue of being simple, crude and suitable for being imposed quickly. Congress seems inclined toward the kind of intricate compromises that will make the system better in theory, but much harder to put into operation.
The phrase "severe petroleum supply emergency" means, in effect, a major drop, for any reason, in Saudi Arabia's production. In comparison with that dire possibility, all of these conservation with that trivial and precious. Offical Washington complains that Americans don't comprehend the urgency of reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Perhaps Americans are misled by their government's fine-spun debates over small plans to save minor amounts of oil.