Secretary of State George P. Shultz has moved to quell an embarrassing flap over the administration's position on protecting stratospheric ozone, sources said yesterday, telling Attorney General Edwin Meese III that he intends to pursue an international agreement unless President Reagan personally decides otherwise.
Since last year, U.S. negotiators have been seeking an international agreement to reduce the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which scientists say are destroying ozone high in the atmosphere and allowing increased ultraviolet radiation to strike Earth.
Last week, administration sources said the White House Domestic Policy Council, headed by Meese, had another option under review: a campaign to encourage people to wear sunglasses, hats and sun lotions to protect themselves from potentially cancer-causing ultraviolet rays.
Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, who argued for the sunscreen plan, has since said it was intended to be part of an "array of alternatives" to be presented to Reagan.
The plan was greeted with derision by environmentalists and members of Congress, who had a field day smearing themselves with skin lotion for news conferences and issuing press releases touting the future of the U.S. hat industry.
In a letter to Meese this week, Shultz said the publicity threatened to damage the U.S. negotiating position when talks on the ozone agreement resume in Montreal this September.
Shultz said he intends to instruct his negotiators to keep working for the international agreement unless Meese can provide a "compelling reason" for changing the U.S. position. Shultz also told Meese that he believes discussions aimed at changing that position are inappropriate at the Domestic Policy Council level.
"He said that if there was a compelling reason to change, he and Meese should take it to the president," said one source.
In international talks involving 31 nations, U.S. negotiators initially sought a 95 percent reduction in global use of chlorofluorocarbons. The chemicals are widely used as refrigerants, foam-blowing agents and, except in the United States and a few other nations, as aerosol propellants.
Last April, the international group tentatively agreed to freeze CFC production at current levels and work toward a 20 percent reduction over the next decade.
The initial agreement left the way open for reductions of up to 50 percent, however, and U.S. officials said they are optimistic that a stronger pact may yet emerge.
The sunglasses-and-lotion proposal threatened to undermine the agreement, they said, because other nations probably would view it as a sign that the United States is not serious about addressing global environmental problems.