Is it Safe Now to Admit Jimmy Carter Was Right?

News Abroad

Mr. Wheelan is the author of four books on American presidents and American history, the most recent published in January, Mr. Adams's Last Crusade: John Quincy Adams's Extraordinary Post-Presidential Life in Congress.

Misunderstood, mocked, and maligned, the 39th president (1977-81) will forever be associated with the Iranian hostage crisis and the botched rescue attempt; the human rights-inspired Olympic boycott and grain embargo; inflation; the infamous rabbit attack; and, above all, skyrocketing fuel prices.

Americans, who hate to be told they must change, roundly condemned Jimmy Carter’s memorable “Crisis of Confidence” speech of July 15, 1979. In it, Carter outlined a program for achieving energy independence: “On the battlefield of energy we can win for our nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.”

We admirers have long endured ridicule whenever we dared to defend Carter’s prescient plan for reducing U.S. dependence on oil.

But today, after all the abuse and scorn heaped on Jimmy Carter and his supporters, we find ourselves paying more than $4 a gallon at the pump to fill our hulking gas guzzlers.

It turns out that Carter was right after all.

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 mph by 1985.)

Jimmy 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.

Jimmy 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.

Amazingly, amid today’s record gasoline prices, Congress even now doesn’t quite get it.

It was only last December that Congress approved new mileage standards, the first in 32 years. If they stand, the present fleet standard of 27.5 mpg will rise to 35 mpg — but not until 2020.

Our leaders’ idea of promoting alternative energy is touting future, non-existent technologies, and that false savior, ethanol. Ethanol consumes nearly as much fuel to make as it produces, while collaterally raising food prices and damaging the environment.

The latest panacea is drilling in the Arctic and offshore, a short-term solution of dubious value that is wildly popular among oilmen and congressmen up for re-election, and in the Bush administration — which evidently hopes to use high gasoline prices as a wedge for opening off-limits areas to exploration for its Big Oil constituency.

Meanwhile, Congress has failed to take the simple step of renewing federal tax credits for wind and solar power that will expire at year’s end. Every week of congressional foot-dragging on renewing the tax credits further dries up venture capital for critical solar and projects.

Why is Congress deadlocked over this critical issue? How have our perceived options become so narrow and skewed?

It is because without any public debate, a de facto U.S. energy policy has evolved and is now in place: to cling ever tighter to our oil-based economy and its lucrative profits for the scions of the status quo, and to marginalize all who are not on board with this.

And now we are in the exact bind that Jimmy Carter tried to prevent three decades ago, when we were reeling from the concussive effects of oil supply disruptions in 1973 and 1979. Acting with promptness difficult to fathom today, our elected leaders then enacted year-around Daylight Savings Time, dropped the speed limit to 55, and established government price controls. And, oh so fleetingly, we downsized what we drove. All gone.

Consequently, the United States last year imported 3.6 billion barrels of oil, three times the 1.2 million barrels imported in 1973. We not only are consuming record amounts of oil, we import nearly 60 percent of it, about 13 million barrels per day. In 1977, U.S. oil imports totaled 8.5 million barrels a day, or 46 percent of consumption.

Remember, under Carter’s energy plan we were to hold the line at the 1977 oil import figure, in barrels. Had we done this, the percentage of U.S. oil imported today would be around 40 percent. Additional savings from Carter’s conservation and his alternative energy and synthetic fuel programs would surely have cut oil imports even further.

But it happened so fast, we say.

One hundred years ago, historian Henry Adams, in explaining his “Law of Acceleration,” observed that technological change occurs at an ever-quickening pace throughout history. “A law of acceleration, definite and constant as any law of mechanics, cannot be supposed to relax its energy to suit the convenience of man.”

Today, change occurs at such blinding speeds that the rise and fall of technologies and nations happen in a single lifetime.

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 Jimmy 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.”