Perhaps it is telling that when it comes to energy policy, President George W. Bush has inspired nostalgia for Jimmy Carter. "If we had only followed Carter's energy plan," people say, "we wouldn't be in this fix now."
For Westerners, though, that's a big mistake. Granted, there were some sensible aspects to Carter's energy policies, such as higher gas-mileage standards, conservation and more solar energy. But in general, Carter saw the West as a colony to be exploited for the benefit of the mother country. If he had succeeded, our skies would be even murkier, our rivers drier, and our landscapes overturned.
Part of Carter's attitude toward the West may have been driven by raw politics. In 1976, the Democratic former governor of Georgia defeated Republican incumbent Gerald Ford with 297 electoral votes to Ford's 240. And not one of Carter's electoral votes came from the Mountain West. Indeed, every state west of the 100th meridian, from California to North Dakota, from Alaska and Washington to Oklahoma, was carried by Ford, with only two exceptions -- Hawaii and Texas.
Carter took office three years after the oil shock of 1973, when an Arab embargo that fall caused pump prices to jump from 30 cents a gallon to 60 cents. He was in office in 1979 when there was another oil shock resulting from the Iranian Revolution. He addressed America's energy challenge on several occasions, once calling it "the moral equivalent of war."
How did he plan to fight this moral war? He did not propose to lift a ban on offshore drilling, because there was no ban then. The congressional ban came about in 1982, when it was passed by a Republican Senate and signed by a Republican president, Ronald Reagan. The executive order against offshore drilling was issued in 1989 by another Republican, President George H.W. Bush.
Carter pointed out that domestic petroleum production had been declining since 1970, and correctly observed that this trend would continue.
Thus America was importing more oil, which leads to two problems. One is financial: Money that leaves America means less money for Americans. The other is geopolitical: A nation that fears embargoes by its energy suppliers may not be free to act in its own interests. Or as Carter put it, "We could endanger our freedom as a sovereign nation to act in foreign affairs."He promised that "this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977," and that all new demand "will be met from our own production and our own conservation."
How would we increase our own production the Carter way?