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May 1, 2008

A Missed Opportunity

Tony Soltero

Nearly 30 years ago, as oil prices soared and waiting lines at gas stations overflowed, President Jimmy Carter laid out a proposal to deal with it. The following is from a speech he delivered in the summer of 1979:


"From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation. The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now and then reversed as we move through the 1980s, for I am tonight setting the further goal of cutting our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade – a saving of over 4-1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day....To give us energy security, I am asking 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."


Jimmy Carter was – and is – a man of long-term vision. As president, he was well aware that oil is a finite resource, and that too much of it is controlled by hostile, unstable governments in distant corners of the world. And he knew that there were two ways to deal with this conundrum: we could either continue to wage costly war after costly war to keep the foreign pipelines flowing, or we could employ our national resources and ingenuity to find new and better (and domestic) ways to provide for our energy needs.


President Carter, like most intelligent men, understood that the long-term approach was the sounder one, and he said so in his speech. For a brief period it appeared that America was willing to make the short-term sacrifices necessary to ensure that our prosperity would outlive the availability of cheap oil.


We lowered our thermostats, bought more fuel-efficient vehicles, and funded research into alternative energy sources. We inconvenienced ourselves a bit so that our children could enjoy the same high standard of living we'd become accustomed to.


Alas, it did not last. A slow economy and the Iranian hostage crisis chased Mr. Carter out of the White House, and his successor, who had run on a simplistic feel-good platform that ignored basic issues and hard realities, quietly pulled the plug on progress toward energy independence. The excuse he offered was that "the market" would take care of the problem; and besides, we're America, and we're entitled to cheap oil, aren't we?


And so it went. Instead of the rehabilitation program President Carter had prescribed, Ronald Reagan just opened the taps and launched another drinking binge. What's more, none of Reagan's successors did anything to reverse his decade of energy policy neglect. Not George Bush. Not Bill Clinton. And certainly not Bush's son.


Carter's warnings were written off as the alarmist rantings of a cranky old bore. And so we, as a nation, lapsed into more and more dependence on foreign oil. If any of our suppliers got prickly, we'd just launch a military operation and all would be well – until the next crisis. It seemed to work for awhile.


But sooner or later, a junkie's high wears off, and he comes crashing to earth. So, now today, as gas approaches $4 a gallon, we have painted ourselves into a corner, leaving us no fallback position. We have not invested in viable public transportation. We have made very little progress in finding different ways to power our vehicles.


Lobbyists continue to fight improved fuel-efficiency standards. And we have built our homes farther and farther away from the madding crowd, away from places we need to go.


To top it off, the chronic economic mismanagement of the current administration has devalued the dollar to the level of a Third World currency, making oil imports costlier than ever. So, what does the administration propose, in its infinite wisdom?


Drilling for oil in Alaska. That's like trying to drain a basement flood with a hand towel.


Maybe if we'd listened to Jimmy Carter, we wouldn't be in this situation today. There would probably be no Middle East wars – their oil would be less relevant to our economy. Our cars might be getting 100 miles a gallon. The sun could be powering our homes.


But President Carter used the word "malaise," so, of course, he had to go. And President Reagan made us feel good about ourselves!


Unfortunately, it's the morning after in America.


Sometimes the cranky old bores have a point.

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