Published on Monday, October 10, 2005 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
Carter's Brave Vision on Energy
by David Morris
George W. Bush asking Americans to save oil by driving less reminds me of Jimmy Carter wearing a cardigan sweater and asking Americans to save oil by turning down our thermostats and, yes, by driving less.
But former President Carter was asking for individual sacrifice as a small part of an aggressive, national campaign. President Bush is asking for individual sacrifice instead of a national initiative.
Carter gave his first energy speech in February 1977. In July 1979, four months before Americans were taken hostage in Iran, he delivered his fifth energy address. To this day, that speech and its aftermath illuminate the profound differences between the way Democrats and Republicans address the oil crisis.
"Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject -- energy," Carter began. "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 told us he had set his speech aside and talked to hundreds of individuals. His conclusion? Americans had lost confidence in our capacity to act decisively and collectively to address and solve our problems. Republicans quickly dubbed the address the "malaise speech."
But to Carter the energy crisis offered an opportunity to regain our sense of hopefulness and national self-confidence. "Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally," he observed. "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."
Carter 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, the nation would reduce "our dependence on foreign oil by one-half."
To achieve these goals Carter requested of Congress "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."
For Carter, fairness was to be an important criterion in shaping energy policy. Since the poor suffer most from rising energy prices, "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 also applied the principle to the other end of the wealth spectrum: the oil companies reaping enormous profits because of OPEC-inspired price hikes.
"Congress must enact the windfall profits tax without delay," Carter insisted. "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."
Congress enacted much of what Jimmy Carter proposed. Coupled with the energy-efficiency standards for cars enacted by an earlier Democratic Congress, and the passage in 1978 of five energy bills directed at spurring energy efficiency and renewable energy, the Energy Security Act of 1980 created a comprehensive and coherent energy policy directed toward eliminating our dependence on imported oil.
Why don't we remember this? In part, because Ronald Reagan entered office only a year after Carter's speech and immediately set about dismantling or dramatically cutting back most of the programs enacted in the 1970s. The energy crisis subsided. A severe worldwide economic downturn in 1981 and 1982 cut the price of crude oil by 75 percent. Depending on imported oil didn't seem so important. The nation dropped back into lethargy.
Fast-forward to 2005. The price of oil again doubles. The Republican-controlled Congress passes an omnibus energy bill. But unlike the energy legislation of the late 1970s, this one does not target imported oil. Indeed, it contains virtually nothing that would reduce our reliance on oil.
Bush tells us to drive less, but unlike Carter, he refuses to demand that our cars become more efficient. Indeed, when California recently enacted legislation requiring new cars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Bush administration joined the car companies in arguing that to achieve greenhouse gas reductions, car companies will have to raise fuel efficiency, and only the federal government has authority over vehicle efficiency. Even when the federal government refuses to do anything, Republicans argue, states cannot step in.
Give me Jimmy Carter in a cardigan sweater any day.
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