SEVEN YEARS after the first oil embargo, this country is little better prepared to deal with another oil crisis. None of the three elements in the basic emergency plan is in place. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve holds a fraction of the oil stockpile that was originally intended. The federal gasoline-rationing plan is a nightmare of complications and is a year or more away from actually being ready. The plan's own authors have publicly expressed their doubts that it will ever work. And now a recently published report of a House investigation reveals that the third element, a system of state-by-state emergency conservation plans required by law nearly a year ago, is also in a shambles.
Under that law, the president would declare an energy emergency and set a national conservation goal. Each state would then have 45 days to submit plans saying how it would meet its own individual goal. The Department of Energy would be allowed 30 days to approve or reject the plans. Considering the enormous complexity of each plan, these deadlines could never be met unless the plans had been worked out in advance. Congress left that decision up to the states, "encouraging" them to develop their plans as soon as possible. Only one state -- Nebraska -- has submitted its plan to DOE for approval. And despite having only this one to consider, DOE has neither approved nor rejected it.
There is no lack of explanations for the failure of the program. The states blame DOE for not making funds and technical assistance available to state planning offices and for failing to publish guidelines showing what an acceptable state plan would look like. DOE argues that the amount of money Congress authorized -- $50,000 per state -- is so small that even the poorest state could come up with it if it wanted to, and points to the lack of evidence that the states, after pushing strongly for primary control over conservation programs, have made any serious effort to build up the necessary technical capabilities of their own.
Regardless of who or what is to blame, no workable system exists to cut back non-essential petroleum uses and to equitably allocate short supplies in the event of another crisis. Yet there could be no better reminder than the current fighting in the Persian Gulf of how quickly the present abundance of oil could turn into a drastic shortage. Planning for a dreaded event that may never occur is not exactly the most inspiring of activities. But this country does need to have feasible plans ready. A greater effort and more cooperation among DOE, the states and Congress are required.