To someone who was bent on becoming "your environmental president," the crisis in the gulf offered a peerless, if perilous, opportunity to drive home to Americans the need to change their gasoline habits.

But four months have passed since Saddam Hussein crashed into Kuwait, and the president has yet to say his first voluntary word about conservation.

His devil-may-care attitude was unfurled in a news conference Aug. 23, when he was asked about calling upon Americans to conserve.

"I think we ought to conserve in times like this," replied the skipper of a gas-guzzling cigarette boat. "On the other hand, that doesn't mean that life screeches to a halt. I'm going to keep using my boat."

For many thousands of reservists, of course, life has screeched to a halt, and one of the reasons they are in the sand is the preservation of oil prices -- although the president doesn't like to hear it put that way.

It is, however, unavoidable for anyone rationalizing his bellicose policy. Secretary of State James A. Baker III crassly asserted that "jobs were at stake" in the gulf, in case politicians were thinking of opposing the president's bid for military action.

Dan Quayle took a cut at the reasons in a speech that has been praised by the administration for its cogency. One of them was "to insure the uninterrupted flow of oil." From this messenger, the message is not assured respectful attention. Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.), reporting wide anti-war sentiment in his district, says dissidents are delighted that the administration is using Quayle as a bugle to rally troops for yet another war he will not have to fight. "The presence of 'the artful dodger' on the other side is a great plus."

The president, in his most coherent presentation to date, warned that the economic slowdown would get worse "if uncertainty remains in the energy markets."

All in all, the president has been going out of his way to avoid the subject of what we could do to reduce our prodigious consumption of energy and our fateful dependence on gulf oil to keep our cars and factories running.

But from his point of view, it is probably prudent to avoid discussion of our energy supply. He is an oil man and the oil business hates talk of conservation. At the petroleum clubs, where he finds many of his best friends, they would rather hear about opening up offshore oil-drilling and off-limits tracts in Alaska. Detroit recoils at one of the environmentalists' favorite remedies, higher fuel efficiency in cars, a requirement it calls prohibitively expensive, as it does most reforms. It also hates talk of alternative fuels such as ethanol, methanol and natural gas.

Any major overhaul in energy policy would be an implicit criticism of Bush's predecessor and patron, Ronald Reagan, who lifted controls on oil prices in 1981. In the 1980s, the United States paid $1.1 trillion for foreign oil.

Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.) thinks that "we should add in our military expenses to protect the Middle East supply. Using military costs alone, gasoline is now costing about $5.50 a gallon."

Yet there is no debate about energy policy, just as there is now no energy policy. It took a while to get the conversation going about the wisdom of going to war; maybe when Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) has finished wringing reasons out of the administration, he will take on the root cause.

Some are speaking up. The admirable Washington Monthly has issued a call for gas rationing -- which causes only scoffing amid energy sophisticates. But in the current issue, James Bennet argues persuasively that "George Bush would have a far easier time convincing Americans oil is worth rationing than he will convincing them it's worth dying for."

Environmentalists gathered here this week under the auspices of the Communications Consortium to speculate and agitate about the policy being formulated at the Department of Energy. The record is not encouraging. According to energy consultant Charles Komanoff, the department in 1990 allocated $900 million to nuclear fission and fusion, approximately the same to oil and coal technology, less than $200 million to energy efficiency and $113 million to all renewable sources -- wind, solar, thermal.

But Jeff Tryens of the Center for Policy Alternatives said: "Contrary to popular belief, government activity in energy efficiency did not vanish 10 years ago. It just moved out of Washington."

People from the provinces, especially California, are forging ahead as if energy efficiency were an achievable alternative to war over oil.