EVER SINCE 1973, the energy policy pendulum has swung with depressing regularity from crisis to glut and back again. A steady resting point somewhere between has not been reached. That would be a point at which transient fluctuations in oil prices were not jarring and where American policy would accept the reality of a permanent shift from $3-a-barrel oil to $30-a-barrel oil.
Currently, we are in the glut phase. The combined effects of the 1979 oil price doubling and the current recession--themselves related--have cut deeply into demand. Producers are being forced to drop prices sharply. And once again we hear that the energy crisis is over. It isn't. Economic recovery alone would soak up much of the excess in today's oil market. Another war or revolution in the Persian Gulf--which any prudent person would have to consider possible--could swiftly send the oil-importing nations back into crisis.
In the United States, imports have dropped by half in the past couple of years. Domestic production is up, and consumption is down. The administration uses this improved outlook to buttress its case for dissolving the Department of Energy. But the appearance of reduced vulnerability to another oil supply interruption is deceptive and dangerous.
Some important changes in American energy use have occurred. The price of oil has been decontrolled, the strategic petroleum reserve is finally being filled, industry is using energy much more efficiently and the gas guzzler is an endangered species. But on the other hand, the price of natural gas is still artificially low, consumers still have no reliable source of help for reducing energy use in their homes and apartments, mass transit facilities compared with those of any other advanced nation are terrible, and the lack of a substantial gasoline tax helps to keep that from changing.
Nevertheless, the Reagan administration argues that higher energy prices have led to energy conservation and that there is therefore no reason for further federal support of research and other conservation programs. But the real issue is how much of what would be economically beneficial is not happening, and will not happen, under current policies. Do most types of energy use--technologies for supply and distribution, consumer information, manufacturing processes and the rest--reflect the reality of expensive energy or the past history of cheap energy?
The answer varies by sector. Large businesses with access to expertise and capital have adjusted well. Most other sectors have not. In residential and commercial buildings, which consume a quarter of all the energy used in this country, only a tiny fraction of the economically desirable savings is being captured.
In short, a good beginning has been made, but it is only a beginning. To abandon conservation programs and dismantle research efforts now is to save small amounts of federal dollars at a very large longer-range cost to the economy. And hopeful talk about the end of the energy crisis ignores the painful lessons of the past decade