Monday, February 26, 2007

Carter and Reagan on Energy: Revisionist History or Good Ole Hindsight?

With the recent news of former President Carter helping to attract a biodiesel plant to his hometown of Plains, Georgia, the AJC's Dan Chapman takes a look back at Carter's influence in the development of alternative energy as president in an article titled, "Ahead of His Time."
For Carter's proposals and their mostly brief existences, Chapman provides a backdrop of what was eventually to happen during the two terms of Carter's wildly popular successor, Ronald Reagan. He also draws parallels between Carter's energy policy and what is happening today both within the George W. Bush administration and America today in general.

Some experts today feel that this is a comparison that clearly comes out in Carter's favor. The fact that none of his successors, Democrat or Republican, have done anything of significance to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil rankles Carter, who was a major proponent of taking the oil industry out of U.S. foreign policy, solar energy, and controversially nuclear energy. He was also the first president to ever mention "ethanol."

Carter's energy policies, call for conservation on the part of Americans, and the supposed "malaise speech" he gave in 1979 were fodder for his opponents and eventually helped push him out of office. But given the fact that politicians from both major parties, today, have joined the push for alternative fuel sources and a move towards lessened depenedence on foreign oil, the former president feels sowewhat vindicated.

From Chapman's article:

"As president, Jimmy Carter installed solar panels atop the White House. He championed coal and nuclear power. He taxed oil company profits. He created the U.S. Department of Energy. He introduced America to ethanol.

Oil imports plummeted during the Carter administration. Renewable energy research skyrocketed. Cars got more miles per gallon of gas. Thermostats were lowered to 55 degrees at night.On Feb. 2, 1977, Carter donned a wool cardigan and asked a national TV audience to conserve energy. Two months later, he likened America's struggle to reduce Middle Eastern oil imports to the "moral equivalent of war."

Was it all for naught?

Today, the United States imports almost twice as much oil as it did during Carter's final year in office. Ethanol, biodiesel, solar and other alternative fuels supply no more energy than they did in 1980. Americans drive Hummers that get 10 miles per gallon.

Pollution from cars, trucks, factories and power plants is widely blamed for endangering the climate. Conservation, according to a dismissive vice president, "may be a sign of personal virtue." U.S. troops are involved in a war in oil-rich Iraq.

Carter's call for conservation was spun as him blaming the American public for the energy problems of the 70's and for Congress' "lack of action" on serious energy policy changes. It was actually Teddy Kennedy, Carter's Democratic challenger in the 1980 election, that first dubbed Carter's "crisis of confidence' speech the "malaise speech." It was a caustic lable that stuck in the craw of the American electorate.
Even after Carter routed Kennedy in the Democratic primaries, the Repulbicans led by Reagan, picked up the "malaise" mantra and told voters what they wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear. In this instance, the "Great Communicator" also proved to be the "Great Masterbator" of the American voting public.

Again from Chapman's article:

"In early 1980, with the caucus in corn-rich Iowa upcoming, Carter called for $1 billion to stimulate ethanol production.

But Ronald Reagan, with his "morning in America" mantra, won the election. His administration soon began killing off many of Carter's energy initiatives.

Reagan halved the Energy Department's conservation and alternative fuels budget, according to Hakes. Spending on photovoltaic research dropped by two-thirds. Yet tax breaks for ethanol actually increased, prompting a surge in ethanol plant production.

Reagan's anti-tax, anti-government credo kicked into high gear during his second term. Energy tax credits for homeowners disappeared. With oil prices dropping, more than half of the nation's ethanol producers foundered.

Reagan rolled back fuel-efficiency standards for cars. And, in the summer of 1986, the solar panels atop the White House were taken down.

Reagan "ignored, even derogated, everything I had done," Carter said. "He spent eight years convincing people every problem in the country was my fault and that I was foolish and naive."


"We would be in much worse shape today without Carter, especially [regarding] the level of oil imports, greenhouse gas emissions and research on alternative fuels," Hakes said. "But we live in an age now where people want something for nothing. It remains to be seen whether we have the stomach to make the hard [energy] choices."

I'm often amazed by the way that Carter was criticized for speaking agaisnt Reagan policy during the Reagan presidency. After all, Reagan made a living off of repeatedly distorting Carter policy and blaming Carter (and sometimes even Nixon and Ford) for many of America's ills. Anything to deflect sound criticism of the long term effects of a popular snake oil saleman's miracle tonic.

I've already heard one Republican call Chapman's article "revisionist history." Looks like to me it's good ole 20/20 hindsight.

Chapman's article closes by asking Carter about George W. Bush's call for increased spending on alternative fuels:

Carter said the White House won't ever ask Americans to sacrifice.

"I haven't seen this administration do anything that would dramatically reduce demand for oil in this country," the ex-president said.

What should Bush do?

"Abandon Exxon and Halliburton and do what's good for this country and good for the American people," Carter responded.

And the likelihood of that happening?



Don Thieme said...

This article made an impression on me as well. Carter had great ideas. He really fell down in terms of picking staff and working with congress to implement those ideas, however. I am not sure that can be entirely attributed to his being "ahead of his time" since it happened in a lot of areas other than the environment.

Button Gwinnett said...

I agree in a many ways Don. Carter was not an effective administrator. Some of his appointments were extremely poor. And then getting them to understand what he wanted seemed to be another problem. His inability to play "the game" with Congress, especially key Democrats, is legendary. He had definite strengths and weaknesses.

BTW, I love reading your posts about energy. You have such a great technical understanding that I simply do not have. But that's exactly why I like reading your thoughts.