Outgoing Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr. yesterday called for the United States to increase its military presence in the Middle East to protect vital oil supplies there from a growing threat of Soviet dominance.

The former defense secretary and CIA director warned that if the United States fails to act, the Soviet Union could "control the oil tap in the Middle East."

In a farewell address at the National Press Club, Schleisinger also said that without rapid development of coal and nuclear energy over the next decade "this society may just not make it."

He said that the "most significant element of the energy crisis, as it has unfolded since the early '10s, is that it provides a new dimension to the political and ideological competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

"The Soviet Union lies near at hand, hovering over a region [the Mideast] to which Russia has aspired since the days of Peter the Great."

Noting that Soviet military power is growing, Schlesinger said that "there is no counterweight" in the middle east; particularly, there is no continuing and significant U.S. military presence.

"For those less complacent, the underlying implications are stark," he warned. "Soviet control of the oil tap in the Middle East would mean the end of the world as we have known it since 1945."

He pointed to recent developments in Iran, including the "overt and covert strengthening of the pro-Soviet left," most notably in the organization of the oil fields, as "major developments" that should cause concern in the United States.

Regarding Iran, which he said "continues to teeter on the edge of anarchy," Schlesinger said "one can sense the infrastructure gradually being put in place for a later coup -- parallel to the events that have transpired in Afghanistan in recent years.

Consequently, he warned, "we cannot for long acquiesce in a regional preponderance of Soviet military power. Rather, he said, "a minimum requirement is toe establishment within the region of a rough balance of military power."

In addition, he said that "the demilitarization of the Indian Ocean would be crippling. No further consideration should be given to such a step, for it would preclude the stationing of substantial naval forces in the area, and thereby preclude the redress of the existing imbalance."

But regardless of foreign problems, Schlesinger also warned that "unless we achieve the great use of coal and nuclear power over the next decade, this society may just not make it."

"But coal use will not grow sufficiently rapidly so long as the mechanics of the Clean Air Act remain unchanged," he said. "While we can support the retention of ambient air quality standards, we cannot achieve the necessary growth of coal use in the face of the existing mechanical and legislative impediments."

In a reference to nuclear power protesters, he said, "The well-known psychological and procedural obstacles to the construction of nuclear power plants will also have to be overcome."

He added that other approaches to solving the nation's energy problems -- particularly synthetic fuels -- are valuable only because they may offer long-term solutions.

Responding to questions following his speech, Schlesinger criticized the news media with some exceptions, which he did not cite -- for their coverage of the energy crisis, saying that the "overall performance has not been a good one.

"The complexities of this issue haven't been explained to the American people.

"I know that a free society cannot survive without a free press. "But, right now we are testing whether a free society can survive with a free press."