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George vs. Jimmy on Energy

There's a stark difference in the way the U.S. confronted an oil crisis when Democrats were in control, compared to the way it has now that Republicans dominate.
 
 
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The image of George Bush asking Americans to save oil by driving less brings to mind another image, that of Jimmy Carter wearing a cardigan sweater and asking Americans to save oil by turning down our thermostats.

Carter delivered his speech in February 1977. In July 1979, he gave another energy address that came to be called the "malaise" speech because he seemed to be blaming our unwillingness to stem the rising tide of oil imports on a national melancholy. Both speeches, most observers believe, contributed to Ronald Reagan's decisive victory in 1980.

Today the Democrats are ridiculing Bush's lame appeal for Americans to spend less time behind the wheel. The last thing they may want is for someone to point out that 30 years ago their own party's leader made a similar request.

They should want people to understand the similarities. And the differences. Because there is a stark difference in the way this nation confronted an oil crisis when Democrats were in control compared to the way it has now that Republicans dominate.

President Carter was indeed asking for individual sacrifice; but as a small part of an aggressive, national campaign. President Bush is asking for individual sacrifice instead of an aggressive campaign.

By the time Jimmy Carter gave his first energy speech, the Democratic Congress had already (under Gerald Ford) imposed fuel efficiency standards on cars. That law single-handedly doubled the fuel efficiency of new cars from 1975 to 1987. In 1978, Carter and a Democratic Congress enacted five individual energy laws that launched the commercialization of alternative transportation fuels and renewable electricity sources. And they imposed efficiency standards on an array of major appliances.

In 1980, Carter and the Democratic Senate and House passed energy legislation that contained a credible and coherent strategy for reducing our dependence on imported oil.

Few Americans remember the Democratic response to the doubling of oil prices in 1979 and 1980. One reason is that within months Ronald Reagan came into office and Republicans gained control of the Senate. They immediately tried to overturn all major energy legislation. That initiative failed. But the executive branch effectively dismantled virtually all renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.

Twenty-six years later, it might be instructive to review what Jimmy Carter said in 1979 and compare it to any energy speech George W. Bush has ever given. President Carter began,

Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject -- energy. For the fifth time I would have described the urgency of the problem and laid out a series of legislative recommendations to the Congress. But as I was preparing to speak, I began to ask myself the same question that I now know has been troubling many of you. Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?

He had set his speech aside, he noted, and met with hundreds of individuals. He quoted from many of them, and concluded that Americans had lost confidence in their capacity to act collectively to solve their problems.

But Carter was not there to dwell on our malaise but to present a strategy for overcoming it. He turned to the issue at hand.

Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally. On the battlefield of energy we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny. ... It can rekindle our sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.

President Carter offered a series of individual actions. First he established a clear goal. "Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation." By the end of the 1980s, he anticipated that the nation would cut "our dependence on foreign oil by one-half."

To achieve these goals he asked for "the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation's history to develop America's own alternative sources of fuel -- from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the sun."

He observed that while all Americans were suffering from higher energy prices, some of us were suffering much more. "Our nation must be fair to the poorest among us, so we will increase aid to needy Americans to cope with rising energy prices...."

Carter recognized this effort would be costly. To pay for it he proposed a windfall profits tax on the enormous profits oil companies were making because of OPEC-inspired rises in oil prices: "Congress must enact the windfall profits tax without delay. It will be money well spent. Unlike the billions of dollars that we ship to foreign countries to pay for foreign oil, these funds will be paid by Americans to Americans."

In 1980, Congress enacted much of what Jimmy Carter proposed. Within months, Ronald Reagan entered office, and immediately set about dismantling or dramatically cutting back most of the programs. He taught us that we should never act collectively, that government was the problem, not the solution. The energy crisis subsided. As a result of the severe worldwide economic downturn in 1981 and 1982, the price of oil dropped in half. A dependence on imported oil didn't seem so important. The nation dropped back into lethargy.

Fast forward to 2005. The price of oil again doubles. As a result of hurricanes we again have long lines at gas stations. The Republican-controlled Congress passes an energy bill. But unlike the energy legislation of the late 1970s, this one does not target imported oil. Indeed, the major difference of opinion between the Republican Senate and the Republican House is that the former wanted to include in the bill a goal, not of reducing our dependence on imported oil, but of slightly reducing the rate at which that dependence would increase. The House refused to even mention in the energy bill that a reduction in our use of oil might be a good thing. The House won.

In 2002, California enacted legislation that would require new cars sold in that state to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration has joined with the car companies in trying to overturn that law. Their argument? To achieve greenhouse gas reductions, car companies will have to raise the fuel efficiency of their cars. And only the federal government has the authority over vehicle fuel efficiency. The Republicans' argument is that even when the federal government refuses to do anything to reduce our consumption of gasoline, the state governments cannot step in.

"There will be no increase in energy efficiency standards on our watch," seems to be the Republican motto. Give me Jimmy Carter in a cardigan sweater any day.

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnnesota and director of its New Rules project.