IN THE LIGHT of its own statistics, the Reagan
administration's antipathy to energy conservation is, at the least, puzzling. According to the Department of Energy, energy consumption in 1980 was only 2 percent larger than in 1973, the year of the oil embargo. But in the same interval, real GNP grew by 18 percent. A little arithmetic shows that the economy required 13 percent less energy to generate a constant dollar of GNP in 1980 than it did in 1973. Most of the energy that fueled growth in these years was provided by conservation and efficiency improvements rather than by new supplies.
Despite this evidence that conservation offers the greatest opportunity for near-term energy "production," the administration wants to eliminate nearly every federal conservation program. Congress restored most of the programs in last summer's budget package. Now a second effort is being made. Internal DOE documents reveal the department's plan to allocate 2 percent of its research, development and commercialization funds for 1983 to conservation. This compares with the 20 percent share set by Congress this year. Nuclear energy would pick up the difference, raising its share to 84 percent of these funds.
Part of the inability to assess conservation's potential accurately comes from the supply-sider's gut preference for, well, supply. Another part comes from the more serious argument that the market will bring about conservation improvements as prices rise, without the need for help from the government. This is only partially true. Because of federal policies, the market is still heavily skewed toward new production. Tax expenditures, to take just one example, are 10 times greater this year for energy production than for efficiency investments.
Another factor that distorts the market is the lack of consumer information. The administration's opposition to programs designed to fill this gap is the hardest to justify. Among the programs targeted for elimination are appliance labeling standards to let consumers know the energy costs of major appliances, voluntary building energy performance standards aimed at architects, builders and new- home buyers and a residential conservation service to inform homeowners which energy improvements will save them the most money. In each case the federal cost is small and the potential marketplace payoff substantial.
Despite budgetary stringencies, Congress has so far resisted every effort to kill conservation programs through budget cuts. This week the Republican-controlled Senate rejected by an overwhelming margin an administration amendment to eliminate the residential conservation service. Yet even if Congress continues to stand firm on funding, there is much the administration can do to nullify the programs. The best hope is that the administration will take a cue from its consistent defeats in Congress and re-examine its policy.