America’s most important energy challenge is finding ways to keep the machinery of industrial societies humming without destroying the global environment. But for the moment, unfortunately, that important work must be put on the back burner, yielding precedence to the urgent job of cleaning up the mess at America’s nuclear warhead factories.
Fortunately, President Bush seems to have found the right person for both jobs. His nomination of retired Adm. James D. Watkins as U.S. secretary of energy ranks as one of his most confidence-building appointments. And it is reassuring to have the admiral say that he will not forget broader energy issues while he tackles the deadly pollutants that have piled up around warhead plants for 45 years.
The Energy Department was created in 1977 to stop waste, promote energy sources that could take the place of oil and generally make Americans more aware of their precarious dependence on imports. Its focus, sharpened by the 1973 Saudi oil embargo and tested in the 1979 shut-off of oil supplies by Iran, was blurred during the Reagan Administration by an insistence that the market place would make everything all right. What the marketplace has produced at the beginning of the Bush Administration is a deterioration in energy efficiency in the United States much graver than that for other industrial nations.
After 10 years of making better use of energy to fuel American growth and production, efficiency flattened out two years ago and dropped last year. In 1986 every $1 increase in the gross national product took 25% less energy than it had in 1976. Now that trend has stopped. U.S. reliance on imported oil is climbing sharply, exposing the nation to an increasing risk of blackmail by embargo. Washington has stopped reminding Americans that wasting energy could mean trouble. Even automobile fuel-efficiency standards were relaxed so that Detroit could build more high-powered, high-profit, gas-guzzling cars.
Watkins said during his confirmation hearings last week that his first priority would be turning around the culture of complacency in government and industry that let much of the machinery of the country’s nuclear weapons system rot away. He also must supervise an expensive cleanup of toxic waste that the complacency culture allowed to ooze into land and water around its facilities.
But he also seemed intent on keeping an eye on the back burner, where issues simmer that will remain crucial to the nation’s survival even if the nuclear-weapons problems is resolved. And he got into enough detail to make clear that he wants to find ways to use nuclear power that are less haphazard, less dangerous, than the ones the United States has followed since the 1940s. He would try to accelerate domestic oil production and look for less polluting ways to use coal to reduce oil imports.
Watkins demonstrated as chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, that he has a long, broad perspective on the national interest that goes well beyond simple patriotism. His Navy training and career demonstrated his expertise, including in energy matters. He may never be in a better position to put his experience and judgment to good use.