An hour after moving into his new Cabinet office yesterday, Energy Secretary Donald P. Hodel called a surprise press conference to hint that he was in no hurry to dismantle the Energy Department and sounded a conciliatory note to his critics.
Hodel, who was sworn in Friday afternoon to replace President Reagan's first energy secretary, South Carolina dentist James B. Edwards, said he wanted to meet with the administration's friends and foes alike in "hopes of identifying common objectives."
He obviously was eager in his first day on the job to make it clear he regards energy as a serious matter of national concern.
"I have a background in energy," Hodel said. "Long-term impacts on this society will be determined by how we handle the development of our energy approach. I think jobs are dependent on what we do, and the jobs of our children as we look down the road."
Hodel, while declining to discuss his energy agenda until Senate confirmation hearings on his appointment begin in December, hinted broadly that the Reagan administration's commitment to dismantle the Energy Department and merge most of its functions into the Commerce Department would not be one of his top priorities.
Unlike his predecessor, who came to office expressing the hope he would become the first Cabinet member to work himself out of a job, Hodel said: "I could say facetiously I wouldn't have taken this if I didn't think this was a career position."
He then noted that the administration remains committed to merging the Energy Department largely with the Commerce Department, and "I'm committed to doing that."
Hodel expressed the hope, however, "that the upset and the destabilization which exists when you are in that kind of a process could be brought to a minimum now, because I think it is fairly clear that there is no major effort to abolish or dismantle existing programs in the department."
Hodel, former undersecretary of the Interior, also hinted broadly that the Energy Department's conservation program -- which languished under Edwards, who felt it largely should be abolished -- might be in for better times during his tenure.
He appeared eager to defuse the mounting criticism of his appointment by environmental groups, who have accused him of being a "clone" of his former boss, Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt.
"I am well aware of some of the things that have been said, not just about me, but about the administration's programs," Hodel said. "One of the things I hope to do between now and the time of confirmation is meet and listen to people who are concerned about energy issues.
"I would like not to exclude anybody," he said. "I would like to be all inclusive in that scope in hopes we can start together at least identifying common objectives, and common purposes to the extent we have them."
A reporter for the Portland (Ore.) Oregonian asked Hodel about a gold button he was wearing on his lapel. He replied that it was an outstanding service award that then-Interior Secretary Rogers C.B. Morton had presented to him in 1975 for energy conservation activities while he was administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration.
"I thought in view of some of the things I had been hearing and reading, it would be appropriate to wear it," Hodel said. "Thank you for asking." The new energy secretary apparently was referring to stories that appeared 10 days ago when Assistant Secretary Joseph J. Tribble fired the government's top conservation expert, Deputy Assistant Secretary Maxine Savitz.
While Hodel did not specifically comment yesterday on that action, Rep. Richard L. Ottinger (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce conservation subcommittee, yesterday called on the new secretary to remove Tribble as "a signal" to Congress and the public of his interest in pursuing a balanced energy policy.
Hodel, 47, who was accompanied by his wife, Barbara, was sworn in right after he was named last Friday. As a recess appointee, he is able to serve in the position pending Senate confirmation, which is expected during the lame-duck session.
Hodel said he met with President Reagan last Wednesday and they discussed a number of energy issues. He said he would report on their discussion to the Senate during his confirmation hearings.