Thursday, July 17, 2008

Everything Old is New Again

Al Gore's call today for an immediate and massive program to replace all U.S. fossil fuel electricity production with renewables is brilliant, courageous, and the absolute minimum required to save - not the planet, but the economy.

It's also a deeply painful reminder to those of us of a certain age who remember a president who recommended essentially the same program. Recommended it at a time when our dependence on foreign oil was half what it is today. At time when such an emergency program to switch to renewables would have cost a far smaller percentage of GDP than Gore's plan will.

In a speech that is remembered today not for its far-sightedness, not for its vision, not for its wisdom, but for the wimpyness of a phrase he never uttered - "national malaise."

As Joseph Wheelan writes, Carter was right.

(More after the jump.)

He was right in seeking to raise the fleet auto mileage standard to 48 miles per gallon by 1995. (Even U.S. automakers admitted at the time that they could easily achieve 30 mpg by 1985.)

Carter was right in exhorting Americans to turn down their thermostats, even if he did look nerdy in a cardigan while urging us to do so.

In his July 1979 speech, he was right when he said, "I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 —- never." That worthy goal quickly went by the board.

He was right to encourage fuel conservation by proposing a 50-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline and a fee on imported oil —- in effect, a floor for fuel prices.

Invoking the pioneering spirit of the 1960s moon mission, he was right to recommend a tax on windfall oil profits to finance a crash program to develop affordable synthetic fuels.

Carter was correct, too, in setting a goal of obtaining 20 percent of our energy from solar power by the year 2000.

We balked, and his energy program, which was new and demanding, shriveled up and died. When oil prices began declining in the 1980s, the justification for change vanished altogether. The Reagan administration junked the proposed 1995 mileage standard and the rest of the Carter agenda.


And now we are in the exact bind that Carter tried to prevent three decades ago.

An energy crisis is again upon us. Soaring gasoline prices and oil imports are daggers aimed at the heart of our stumbling economy.


It is time to give Carter's proposals a second hearing.

This is what he said in July 1979: "You know we can do it. We have the natural resources. We have more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias. We have more coal than any nation on Earth. We have the world's highest level of technology. We have the most skilled work force, with innovative genius, and I firmly believe that we have the national will to win this war."

Cross-posted at Blue in the Bluegrass.