strategic material remained acute because of the still-increasing level of oil imports. National policy makers came to see oil vulnerability as the preeminent issue in energy policy (e.g., Lewis, 1980). The 1979 oil shortfall again focused attention on the needs of individuals and municipalities because short supplies were unevenly distributed and because price increases forced hard choices on many consumers. More recent events, including a sharp decline in oil imports and a downward slide in oil prices, have again changed perceptions in the policy community. With shortages and price fluctuations receding into memory and the rapid decline of oil imports through 1981 and 1982, the arguments that the Department of Energy was not needed and that the market could handle energy became more plausible. Once again there was a shift to regarding energy as a commodity.
These shifts of perspective are likely to continue for some time. When sharp price increases for forms of energy occur, they direct attention to unmet social needs. Recurring political crises in the Middle East underline the necessity of energy and reemphasize energy’s relationship to national security. And major accidents or environmental incidents associated with nuclear power production, oil refining, coal burning, or the disposal of petrochemical or radioactive wastes—which can occur at any time—remind people of the importance for ecological systems of careful use of energy resources.
Yet, despite the rapid shifts in the way experts and others perceive energy problems, the problems themselves are rather stable and persistent. Because of the dependence of Western economies on Middle Eastern oil, strategic problems will continue to surround the energy issue. Because energy prices are unlikely ever to return to their pre-1973 levels, many households and localities will continue to suffer economically.5 Even by the most optimistic estimate the buildings sector of the economy will take decades to adjust to the price increases. And because of the time delays involved in such environmental problems as acid rain and the greenhouse effect, environmental issues will persist in energy policy, no matter what actions are taken in the immediate future.
This situation presents a dilemma for sustained policy making. Effort is necessary to deal with long-lasting energy problems, but because of changing perceptions, it is difficult to maintain such effort. Policy analysts tend to focus on only one or two aspects of energy at a time. This weakness in developing an inclusive energy policy is rooted in the failure to recognize energy as being many things simultaneously. Given rapidly changing world conditions, policies based on any one view of energy are likely to seem inappropriate when conditions change. When public officials fail to appreciate this point, they often believe that their particular views of energy can be sustained politically over time. For example, former Secretary of Energy James Edwards could defend the Reagan Administration’s abrupt