Carter's energy policy seems prescient today

July 21, 2008|By CYNTHIA PARKER

Even in his home state of Georgia, former President Jimmy Carter does not receive universal acclaim. He is regarded by many as a weak-kneed appeaser or a naive do-gooder with a puritanical bent.

Much of that reputation can be traced back to his widely noted July 1979 speech on the nation's "crisis of confidence," remembered as the "malaise" speech, though he didn't use that word.

The response to that televised talk taught politicians one thing: Never ask Americans to make any sacrifices. After all, it is now accepted wisdom that the speech - combined with hyper-inflation, hostages and an oil spike - cost Mr. Carter a second term.

But a sober and fair look back at what Mr. Carter actually said ought to earn him higher marks. He was right when he insisted that consumers conserve energy; he was right to urge a drastic increase in the use of solar power; he was right when he called for a cap on imported oil.

"Beginning at this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 - never," he said. "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."

Mr. Carter also called for research into alternative fuels, massive investment in public transit and a broad campaign for conservation. He acknowledged that the new programs would require billions; but "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."

Of course, you know the rest of the story. The next year, Ronald Reagan was elected and threw out Mr. Carter's plans. The Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries relented, and gasoline became, once again, plentiful and cheap.

So Americans pretended Mr. Carter was the problem - not our profligate consumption patterns. Today, we're importing twice as much oil as we were when Mr. Carter gave that speech.

(In the last 28 years, the nation's oil consumption has gone up by about 21 percent, but the increase might have been even sharper were it not for the 1973 oil shocks. That OPEC-induced discomfort prompted Congress to pass the first-ever corporate average fuel economy - or CAFE - standards in 1975. Between 1974 and 1989, the efficiency of a typical car sold in the U.S. almost doubled, to 27.5 miles per gallon, according to The New York Times. Since then, unfortunately, our love affair with trucks and SUVs has sent average fuel efficiency spiraling downward.)

What if the nation had stuck to the path Mr. Carter laid out? What if we had invested billions back then in public transit and alternative fuels? What if we'd made a national campaign of conservation, similar to the successful no-smoking campaign? What if we'd insisted that Detroit continue pushing up fuel efficiency?

The United States would not be held hostage by petro-crats or tied down in a volatile region of the globe. The money we send to places such as Saudi Arabia plumps the bank accounts of its many princes, who use their billions to appease jihadists. While Afghanistan's Taliban certainly played a role in 9/11, 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Why send any of our money to them?

As recently as seven years ago, in the wake of 9/11, President George W. Bush could have used our renewed sense of duty and patriotism to hike the gasoline tax and push through higher CAFE standards. At the time, the average cost of a gallon of gas was around $1.55. If Mr. Bush had pushed the price to $2.50, the nation would have had a huge reserve to use for building public transit and finding alternative fuels. Instead, he did nothing about our addiction to oil.

Even now, Mr. Bush is loath to encourage conservation. "It's a little presumptuous on my part to dictate how consumers live their own lives," he told reporters last week. "You know, people can figure out whether they need to drive more or less." Wasn't it presumptuous to invade Iraq, a country that had no part in 9/11 but does have the world's second-largest known reserves of oil?

Looking back, Mr. Carter's plan makes a lot more sense than staying tied down in the Middle East. It's time to dust off his speech and several of his energy proposals.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears regularly in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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