President Carter's mid-July pledge not to let "one drop of foreign oil more" into the country than was imported in 1977 is becoming an energy albatross around his neck, but one he can shed only with acute political embarrassment.
The oil quota was the one major energy initiative to come out of the celebrated "domestic summit" at Camp David and was the widely praised centerpiece of his July 15 energy speech. But overly pessimistic economic forecasting and the continuing nuclear power freeze within the bureaucracy guarantees reaching the quota much faster than anybody thoughly possible -- quite likely during 1980.
Soon thereafter, U.S. prices will be racing above the OPEC price. To avoid this knockout punch, the temptation to reimpose tight federal controls -- and reverse present policy -- will be close to irresistible. There would be no effective way to reduce energy demand, despite all the claims made in the name of conservation.
The alternative back away from the July 15 pledge. "I think the president would be absolutely nuts to stay with the quota," one high-level energy official confided to us. "Nuts" or not, however, Carter seems committed to it. The entire episode is another tragic lesson of what so often happens when the laws of economics are bent to political purposes by the government.
The oil-quota idea came from the president's staff, primarily as a device to show critical Western Europe that the United States meant business about energy conservation. James Schlesinger, then secretary of energy, protested that this was a descent into madness. But Schlesinger's frequent ally, then Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, opposed him this time on grounds that a quota would strengthen the dollar.
The quota was seized on during the Camp David extravaganza as one solid morsel amid vaporous philosophizing. Besides, it had the special appeal of a political gimmick. In declaring "this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never," Carter seemed to be decreeing a level of usage lower than today. In fact, the 8.5 million imported barrels a day during that prosperous year was well above today's level as well as the level then expected for election year 1980.
While the public cheered this seeming step away from energy dependence, experts frowned. "The president is gambling," one congressional staff economist declared in a private memorandum that explained how the OPEC price would no longer serve as a ceiling on domestic prices. The same economist told us a month ago: "Decontrol with a quota means that Carter will succeed in clobbering the economy" (by putting domestic oil under irresistible price pressure).
Since then, the march to ruin has accelerated. The economy's strength in staving off recession has kept oil imports unexpectedly high. But the crowing blow came in one of those exhibitions that make the multi-faced U.S. government the wonder of the world.
On Aug. 24, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission backed down under pressure, canceling its announced decision to resume processing licenses for new nuclear power plants. Measured very conservatively, that decision can require an extra 250,000 barrels a day in imported oil by late winter. The Energy Department plans were thoroughly undermined.
Cleaning out his desk before Labor Day, the departing Schlesinger left behind a warning that the 1977 import level was being approached and listed four options for dealing with that calamity. All would put the government back into oil regulation, with Option No. 4 reinstituting straight-out price controls. That would mean Carter had junked his own decontrol program, but this seems the course most likely to be selected by the White House.
It is no secret that Schlesinger, if still at Energy, would urge instead that Carter shelve his "not one drop" pledge of July 15. What Schlesinger's successor, Charles Duncan, would do is a secret. A methodical man, Duncan is now studying his inherited predicament.
Duncan has at his disposal clever Energy Department schemes to escape the woes of clever past schemes. All would circumvent the quota without really lifting it. An example: oil imported for the strategic petroleum reserve (supposedly growing by 300,000 barrels a day) would not count against the quota.
Other officials are stroking their rabbit feet in phantom hope that the quota will not be reached until after the 1980 election, after which it can be safely discarded. But some senior officials are truly unaware that the president took a course at Camp David that must end in folly or embarrassment. A worse fate than wearing an albatross is wearing one without knowing it.