When President Carter canceled his energy speech last week, sources say, he had three politically explosive sets of energy options before him:
How to balance energy and environmental needs.
What to do about energy prices and controls, including the allocation system.
What to do about augmenting energy production, including synthetic fuels.
Except for launching a more ambitious synthetic fuels program, probably the most politically popular cause in town these days, every choice his advisers had put before him in two days of lenghty meetings carried a high political price tag.
The only measures that stood any chance of dealing with the most immediate crisis, the gasoline lines, were fraught with the most political dangers, the sources said.
Since there is no way to increase domestic oil production quickly, and no assurance that more could be bought on world markets, the only answer to the gas lines, Carter was told, is to reduce demand while distributing available supplies more evenly.
One choice, proposed by the Department of Energy and bitterly opposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, would allow electric utilities to burn coal instead of oil in some instances, and high-sulfur oil when weather conditions permitted.
A far more sweeping ideas would immediately decontrol domestic crude oil and gasoline prices, while abolishing the present allocation system - which, in the words of Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, "puts the gastoline where the cars are not."
Oil companies following their usual business practice, would probably reduce deliveries to all their customers by the same percentage to cover the present shortage. The present allocation program requires that several groups get priority treatment, so others get less.
Gasoline stations would be free to charge customers whatever the traffic would bear, and even proponents of this marketplace approach agree that there could easily be a chaotic month or two before the market settled down, according to one administration analysis of the idea.
Prices might well end up not much above $1 a gallon, on average, but could shoot up to the neighborhood of $1.50 or more in the first few weeks, that analysis said.
President Carter began a phased decontrol of domestic crude oil prices last month that is supposed to end controls in September 1981. Principal reason for doing it that way was to limit the inflationary impact of decontrol, officials said at the time. And that is still the problem, both economically and politically.
The decontrol advocates, who included Schlesinger and Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, sources said, argued that the coming recession would reduce demand for oil and help limit the resulting price increases.
Taking a leaf from the same book, advisers opposed to price decontrol said the recession would help reduce the gasoline lines, perhaps easing the problem without adding still more to inflation and infuriating a public already upset about the high cost of gasoline, sources indicated. Among the opponents of decontrol were Vice President Mondale and presidential aide Stuart Eizenstat.
Augmenting production basically would mean deciding how large a synthetic fuels program to propose, and who would control. Several advisers wanted to set up a new organization to make sure that the Energy Department did not have the say.
Eizenstat also proposed to Carter, in a June 28 memo, creation of a National Energy Mobilization Board to select energy projects "to the built in the national, eliminating all of the normal regulartory today that slows such projects down."
Again, such an approach and anger invironmentalists as well as state and local governments, the sources noted.
White House officials said that Carter di not cancel his Thursday speech just becausehe had not decided how to deal with these difficult choices. The possibility remains, however, that Carter may have realized that a speech merely promising to make the choices soon would not be well received.
And given the enormous impact some of his choices would have have on the economy, on the environment, on federal-state relationships, on the already poor state of cooperation with Congress, and on the public mood - in short, on Carter's whole political future - the president may have decided to pull back and begin the much broader process of consultation he now has launched.
While Carter's speech and new policy proposals would have been about energy, they would in reality have been about much more.