On the night of Jan. 17, as television monitors showed frantic scenes of the first Scud attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia, John J. Easton Jr., an assistant secretary of energy, had the "eerie feeling" he was "living out a Tom Clancy novel."

Easton, 48, was working as the senior duty officer in the department's Emergency Operations Center. As the 12-member staff handled the flood of incoming calls from officials worried about the impact on the world's oil supplies, Easton used the secure line to Saudi Arabia and other classified information sources to prevent rumor-fed panic in the financial markets.

The same scramble had taken place when hostilities began -- and would happen again when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein unleashed history's biggest oil slick on the Persian Gulf by opening the taps at a captured loading platform. In each case, a department not usually associated with ground combat had an important role to play.

That the Energy Department would have, in effect, its own war room underscores two critical facts that distinguish this war from others America has fought. However the Persian Gulf War is invested officially with moral imperatives -- a battle between good and evil, as President Bush has characterized it -- this war is driven by economic imperatives, specifically the crucial flow of oil for America and the industrial world.

And after the war is over, Energy will be at the center of another crucial question: Whether the government establishes a national energy policy that will make America less dependent on Middle East oil. Given the long political record of failure to achieve that goal, establishing such a national policy may prove more difficult than prosecuting the war. Already Easton worries that the nation will miss "a golden opportunity" if this war does not result in that.

For now, the emergency operation is playing its own significant part, operating round-the-clock in two cramped, windowless rooms. Every inch of wall space is lined with maps and charts detailing the latest oil production and price figures and TV monitors bringing the latest news and weather from the gulf.

"Because of my military background," said Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, a retired admiral and former chief of naval operations, "I felt it was critical to have an accurate real-time information flow" to back the decisions officials would have to make and, equally importantly, to "dampen the fires of confusion" and set to rest "the many rumors floating around at a time like this. I told our people, 'Let's don't let world economies go down the tube on the basis of rumor.' "

So far, that has not happened. Watkins' first goal was "to deny the self-fulfilling prophecy that oil would go to $60 to $100 a barrel" if war broke out. Instead, the price immediately dropped $10.56 a barrel and has stayed down.

Watkins credits "80 percent to the success of the military mission the first day," but says, "What we did buttressed that. . . . We could communicate with NYMEX {the New York Mercantile Exchange, where oil futures trade} and others if they got word that some refinery had blown up, as they did once, and we could say, 'It's not a refinery, it's a 260,000-gallon tank that's burning in northern Saudi Arabia.' "

Now that the first crises are past, a sense of quiet routine marks the operations center, which in recent years helped the department respond to lesser crises from Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina to the earthquake that damaged the San Francisco Bay area.

"Anything that happens across the nation or in the world involving energy, we have the information here and we can make the appropriate notification," explains William E. Nay, its manager.

With war, the center's staff grew ten-fold, and a schedule was established to rotate one of six assistant secretaries into the "hot seat" round-the-clock.

Nay recruited a staff of 100 people from Washington and field offices, working in shifts. The center was reconfigured and nearly doubled in size. An elaborate communications system was established, with secure phones providing quick access not only to Saudi Arabia but also to U.S. weapons plants and laboratories under DOE's control -- and to "the crisis action center" at the Pentagon.

On the daily "watch desk," employees handle a steady flow of classified data, logging it into computers where it can be retrieved and analyzed.

A month after Kuwait was captured and the center began gearing up, Watkins and his emergency management team started a series of "war game" exercises. The purpose of these "worst-case" scenarios was to ensure that the department was prepared for any wartime eventuality. Watkins termed the first September drill "a dismal failure," assigning it an "F" grade. The next, three weeks later, improved minimally to a "D." The third he gave a "C minus."

After the fourth "game," in November, Watkins felt a need to make a personal trip to Saudi Arabia. He talked with Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm, and met with the Saudi oil minister and the American ambassador. Out of that came the secure phone link, called "Black Gold," between Saudi Arabia and his emergency center. By the fifth and last game, on Dec. 20 -- "very good, fine tuning . . . an A minus" -- Watkins was satisfied. His system was in place, and it worked.

Out of the "games" had come a recommended response to one of Watkins' greatest fears: Saddam's threat to use "oil as a weapon" and cause "an environmental holocaust" in the gulf. The possibility that Saddam would dump oil into the gulf was specifically examined by a team at the department's Sandia lab in Albuquerque, and an emergency solution proposed: to "ignite at the source . . . and stop it" by bombing.

That information was passed to the upper echelons of the government. The operational briefing was videotaped and sent to the gulf. Last weekend it was implemented.

"I don't think that would have happened without the Emergency Operations Center having been established," Watkins said. "They're on the phone with me all the time and I say, 'Have you told Defense? Have you told the National Security Council?. . . . Now they're doing that automatically. You can't just sit down there with the information. You have to move it . . . and then you can be a player."