THEY ARE going to try again. The leaders of the seven large industrial democracies, at their meeting in Venice, pledged themselves once more to try to cut the rate at which they are burning oil. Are they likley to succeed this time?
Just a year ago the same seven governments met in Tokyo, in an atmosphere of great tension. There were gasoline lines in the United States. There was frantic bidding for oil supplies worldwide. There were wild escalations of prices. The average price of oil went over $20 a barrel as the Tokyo meeting began, driven by panic among buyers throughout the industrial world. The Tokyo meeting, at American insistence, adopted specific country-by-country limits on oil use in an attempt to damp down the bidding.
The remedy was not immediately successful. With winter coming, the snatching and grabbing continued and within six months the price was approaching $30 a barrel. Since then, the rate of increase has slackened, but policy can't take much credit for it. The high prices were depressing economic growth. Self-interest was reinforcing conservation. By the turn of the year, oil use was dropping in all of the seven countries except Canada, with its heavy fuel subsidies.
When the seven statesment went to Venice last weekend, there were no gasoline lines and there was no sense of shortage. There was no inclination to tighten last year's limits, although prices were still rising. Instead, the seven chose to discuss the longer future. The year 1990 is now a convenient decennial target, close enough to seem serious but not so close that it requires anybody to do anything very disruptive or unpopular for the time being.
A pattern is emerging in energy politics, here and in other democracies. Governments are choosing the long, slow paths that will lead to results in the 1990s. Everybody knows that, in the meantime, any sudden drop in oil production in the OPEC countries, and specifically in Saudi Arabia, would have a catastrophic impact among OPEC's customers. Everybody also understands that the only way to stabilize oil prices is to cut imports quickly and substantially.
But the seven governments have tacitly decided that imposing that kind of severe cut is more expensive and difficult than governments of limited power can manage. In the United States, after all, Congress has just mindlessly batted down a minuscule 10-cent tax on gasoline. Three of seven countries -- Germany, France and the United States -- are now embarked on national election campaigns. The moment is not right forceful policy. Perhaps next year.
As for the route to 1990, the Venice meeting offers the conventional and predictable one. It proposes shifting from oil to coal and, secondarily, expanded nuclear power. But doubling coal production seems unlikely within the next decade, and opposition to the reactors seems to be rising again. While Mr. Carter was breaking bread with the monks in Venice, his party's platform committee here in Washington was voting vehemently anti-nuclear language into the Democratic platform.
Fortunately, economic stability and prosperity may not require this vastly expanded use of coal or uranium. These seven countris are rich because they have technology. The technology that uses gigantic amounts of energy may now be capable of evolving into other, more efficient forms, less demanding of fuel but no less productive. That process is far from certain. But it already seems to have begun.