White House advisers are considering reviving one of President Reagan's 1980 campaign promises: a plan to abolish the Energy Department that was created by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter.
The opportunity to close the department's doors could arise, administration officials said, because of the resignation of Interior Secretary William P. Clark to return to California. The officials said that many of DOE's offices could be moved to the Interior Department if the president names Energy Secretary Donald P. Hodel as Clark's successor.
The officials said that Hodel, who was undersecretary of the interior under James G. Watt, has the inside track to replace Clark if he wants the job. They said the path was clear for Hodel because the other leading candidate for the post, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), has taken himself out of consideration.
One well-placed official said that the proposal to combine the Interior and Energy departments was now under "active discussion" in high councils of the administration. Because Hodel has experience in the Interior Department, he probably would be "the ideal person" to head a merged department, one official said.
During his 1980 campaign for the presidency Reagan promised to abolish two departments in order to streamline the bureaucracy: Energy and Education. While this is still Reagan's "ultimate goal," according to a senior official, the administration as a practical matter has abandoned the idea of abolishing the Department of Education.
Clark's decision to leave the administration, after 18 years in which he has served as a trouble-shooter in many roles for Reagan, came as a surprise to the president, officials said.
But the president was said to be sympathetic to Clark's desire to return to his 888-acre central California ranch after many years of government and judicial service, nearly all of it at Reagan's behest.
"I took him into public life for 18 years, and he left his own pursuits in private life," Reagan said today during a picture-taking session here. "And a couple of years ago he was desirous of getting back, but at my request stayed on . . . . I'm going to miss him very much but I don't have any continued arguments to keep him on longer if he feels he must return."
Clark plans to leave in the next few months, probably late in March. No formal consideration of a successor is likely for several days.
The only other possible successor to surface in early discussions other than Hodel and Laxalt has been William D. Ruckelshaus, who last month announced his resignation as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Ruckelshaus said at the time that he wanted to spend several weeks considering his future, but it is believed that he has received several financially attractive offers outside the government.
When Ruckelshaus left, Reagan accepted his recommendation for a successor. It is not known whether the president would follow the same pattern for the Interior Department post or whether Clark has made any recommendations. However, the interior secretary has established a close working relationship with Hodel.
Reagan, during his 1980 campaign, soundly criticized President Carter for creating the Energy Department and pledged to eliminate it. Reagan said at one point: "Eliminating the DOE and its petroleum allocation rules would be an important first step toward solving the energy crisis."
When Reagan picked his first energy secretary, Dr. James B. Edwards, the former South Carolina governor said that he was willing to dismantle the department.
"I'd like to go to Washington and close the Department of Energy down and work myself out of a job," Edwards said shortly before he took over the job in early 1981.
However, it quickly became apparent that the president's team wanted to keep a separate Energy Department at least long enough to change the course of the government's environmental and energy policy. Even Reagan's transition team in 1980, led by Texas geologist and oil millionaire Michel Halbouty, said that the department should continue operations "for some time."
Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho), the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, also balked at the idea of phasing out the energy arm of the government when Reagan proposed transferring DOE's programs to the Commerce Department in 1982.
Any new plans to merge two departments or parcel out DOE's offices to other branches of the government would require congressional approval.