CONFERENCES: Opening the Debate

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"The question is whether we go skittering off the edge of the cliff in a blind way or whether we start to make the adjustments now. The purpose of the President's program is to start adjusting now for what will inevitably happen in the future. "

In that measured, dispassionate manner, James R. Schlesinger, who is President Carter's Mr. Energy, spelled out the Administration's approach to the nation's looming energy crisis. He was speaking to members of Time Inc.'s third energy conference. The timing could hardly have been more propitious. Only two weeks before President Carter's self-imposed deadline for the announcement of a comprehensive energy program, 88 leaders from the Government and virtually every energy industry and interest group gathered in Williamsburg, Va. The speeches and discussions provided a unique preview of the debate that Carter's policy address on April 20 will inevitably touch off.

Appropriately, the keynote speaker was Schlesinger (TIME cover, April 4), the cerebral administrator par excellence, to whom Carter entrusted the assignment of formulating a comprehensive plan for submission to Congress within 100 days of the Inauguration.

"We have a classic Malthusian case of exponential growth against a finite source," explained Schlesinger. "On the demand side, we have the additional problem that increasingly our energy system generates waste, a high degree of inefficiency. On the supply side of the problem, we have the additional embarrassment that we have become unduly dependent on foreign sources. Some other nations also are highly dependent on foreign sources, but it is a special problem for the great stabilizing power of the West, which requires a high degree of economic and political invulnerability."

Sometimes rapping the lectern for emphasis, Schlesinger continued: "Since World War II, we have had a phenomenal rate of malusage so that in each decade—the '50s and the '60s—the world consumed more than had been used up in all previous human history. Oil production should peak out around the world in the early 1990s. The world, which is now consuming about 60 million bbl. a day, faces a limit on production somewhere around 75 million or 80 million bbl. a day. That means in five years' time we may have chewed up most of the possibility of further expansion of oil production."

Turning to details of the presidential package, Schlesinger said that it dealt with two time frames: the next ten years and beyond. For the next decade, he said, the U.S. will rely mainly on strict conservation and the two "bridging fuels," coal and conventionally produced nuclear energy. "We are going to have to make do with what we have," he declared. "There will be no fusion reactor, no breeder reactor, there will be no solar-electric energy, only those fuels currently available will generally be around." Schlesinger candidly explained the Administration's decision to de-emphasize breeder research as a concession to the environmentalists. He defended it as the sort of trade-off necessary in order to organize a national consensus in support of Carter's program.

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