It's sad but true that the United States still, in spite of recurring em-bargoes and crises in the Middle East, has no coherent national energy policy. Advocates of a policy of energy independence line up when our foreign oil supply is endangered but when the oil flows smoothly and cheaply during the calm periods, the issue is put aside.

The Senate appears on the verge of approving legislation that, although it falls far short of being a comprehensive energy policy, at least is a step in the right direction.A law requiring carmakers to increase the average fuel efficiency of their fleet to 40 miles per gallon by 2001 appears headed for passage by the Senate, but faces tough, maybe impossible, going in the House.

Motor vehicles are the largest single user of petroluem products in the United States, and proponents of the bill claim the higher fuel ratings will reduce consumption of oil by 2.8 million barrels daily - fully a third of 8.4 million barrels the country imports every day.

Mileage standards were first imposed during the 1974 energy crisis. The auto industry raised the average fuel economy rate from 14 mpg to the current 28 mpg.

Unfortunately, without the prod of federally required mileage standards, performance has stalled for the past five years. The fleet average of 28 mpg for 1991 models is exactly that same as it was in 1987.

Interestingly, the Detroit carmakers in 1974 opposed the mandatory fuel economy rating on the grounds it was technologically impossible, prohibitively expensive and spelled the ruin of the domestic auto industry.

Those are the same arguments Detroit is using today despite meeting the 28 mpg standard.

They did it in the decade following 1974 by innovative engineering, designing new combustion systems and building lighter weight cars. They also did it out of fear, under the threat of competition from Japanese carmakers who saw no problem in meeting the standards.

Arguments against raising the standards don't measure up to the single most persuasive evidence that the nation needs to reduce its dependence on foreign oil supplies: the thousands of American lives put to risk and billions of dollars being spent every day in the Persian Gulf in defense of that oil.