Not for a decade has the U.S. energy policy agenda been so full.
The Persian Gulf crisis has doubled U.S. oil prices in a month. Congress returns next week to face a budget battle in which the role of energy taxes and costs of a huge military deployment to protect oil supplies are likely to be the focus of debate.
At the same time, Congress will be completing work on a revision of the Clean Air Act, making decisions about coal, electric power and motor vehicle fuels that will affect the domestic energy picture for years.
Oil industry lobbyists and energy-state legislators are clamoring for a reassessment of restrictions on oil exploration in environmentally sensitive areas. Environmental groups and energy-conservation advocates are countering with demands for restrictions on energy consumption, especially through mandatory improvements in automobile mileage efficiency.
Antitrust investigators are examining the structure of the domestic oil industry. Also pending are critical regulatory actions affecting natural gas supplies in the Northeast, nuclear power plant licensing, disposal of nuclear waste and the future of hydroelectric power.
Driven by consumer outrage over gasoline price increases, some members of Congress have proposed legislation to deal with them. These bills have little chance of enactment, but they have become part of an increasingly unfocused debate. One measure would reinstate the Windfall Profits Tax on the oil companies and use the revenue to finance the savings and loan cleanup. A proposal by a group of Democratic senators would allow the president to declare a national energy emergency and ban "profiteering" on petroleum products.
The Bush administration does not want the authority to impose energy price controls or to allocate energy resources. But beyond that, its overall energy policy has never been articulated -- it is still being developed, 14 months after Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, in a White House ceremony, said he would develop a comprehensive national energy strategy aimed partly at eliminating decision-making based on crisis or panic.
Last week, the perceived absence of a coherent, comprehensive energy policy itself became the focus of criticism of the administration's response to the latest oil crisis. Environmentalists and conservation advocates ridiculed Watkins's low-key request that Americans save gasoline by keeping their tires properly inflated and President Bush's remark that he was going to continue running his fuel-guzzling speedboat because there is no energy emergency.
"The initial response of the Bush administration to this latest crisis signals a continuation of the shortsighted policies which have gotten the United States into this mess in the first place," said the Energy Conservation Coalition in a comment typical of criticism of the administration. "Although inflating our tires will reduce some oil use, it is not the hard-hitting policy and program recommendations this country needs."
The demand for action on an energy policy framework is not coming just from the environmental community.
Texaco Inc. released the results of a poll it commissioned indicating that 86 percent of Americans favor development of a comprehensive energy policy and 73 percent believe the situation in the Middle East represents "a serious threat to the American economy and the nation's way of life."
Texaco President James W. Kinnear said the poll "reinforces our belief that Congress, the administration, the oil industry and the American public should take concerted, urgent steps to secure the future energy needs of the United States by developing and implementing a strong national energy policy."
Michael T. Halbouty, the crusty chairman of Halbouty Energy Co. in Houston, wrote in the trade newspaper Oil Daily: "The most strange of all absurdities is that the United States has never had a workable energy policy." He urged prompt enactment of measures to stimulate domestic oil and gas production, without waiting for "the study the Department of Energy has had almost two years to come up with."
The Wall Street Journal attributed the perceived policy paralysis to administration infighting in which White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and members of the president's Council of Economic Advisers have cut the Energy Department out of the process.
Senior Energy Department officials rejected all these criticisms.
"There is no policy vacuum," one said. "There is actually quite a lot going on."
"I read that piece in the Journal," said Deputy Energy Secretary W. Henson Moore. "It's silly. The president had me over there on Monday morning, I'm on the phone to Sununu, we're at all the meetings. You are going to see more statements coming out of the White House as we get information over to them."
Moore said Bush understands energy issues better than any other president and is "not going to operate by sudden decision to impose higher mileage standards or open the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling."
He said that "the groups that are being critical are seizing an opportunity to espouse their own agenda" and that the administration's energy policy will not be driven by the short-term views of any segment of the energy policy community -- especially because the administration believes enough crude oil is available to avert any serious disruption of foreign supplies.
Moore said on Friday that he had "just put the finishing touches on proposals for the medium term, the next year or two, that will become part of an interagency discussion process at the White House." He said they include "some good ideas" that involve production and conservation, as well as techniques to enhance fuel supply flexibility, such as switching factories from one energy source to another.
Moore laughed off any suggestion that the Energy Department has been wasting time. The basis of the administration's analysis of the energy implications of the Persian Gulf crisis, he said, is the body of information and the reliable computer models that have been developed in the time the department has been preparing the proposed national energy strategy. For example, he said, Bush's decision not to sell oil from the 590-million-barrel Strategic Petroleum Reserve is based on "true supply numbers" showing that "there is not yet a true supply-demand reason for the price increase. That's just the psychology of the market."
"It would have been great if we had finished it six months ago," he said. "Thank goodness we started the process when we did," he said, asserting that the studies done so far have helped the administration avoid hasty or panic-driven decisions of the kind taken during the energy crises of the 1970s.
Development of the overall long-range national energy strategy, aimed at providing rational, well-understood options on which to base decisions into the next century, is "on schedule," he said. "It will be on the president's desk in December."