- Shift electric utilities to coal from oil or natural gas. At the time, nobody worried about greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. But acid rain, a result of burning high-sulfur Eastern coal, was a major environmental concern. Western coal is lower in sulfur. So coal production, mostly from strip mines, jumped in the West: Colorado doubled from 8.9 million tons in 1975 to 18.8 million in 1980; Wyoming quadrupled from 23.8 million to 95.8 million.
Most of this coal would go to electric generation, but Carter also promoted other uses.
- Make synthetic fuels from coal. The Germans, rich in coal but short on petroleum, made aviation and diesel fuel from coal during World War II, so it is possible -- at least in a police state during wartime. It is also possible to make heating gas by running steam over coal; the result used to be called "coal gas," as opposed to the "natural gas" that comes from wells. Both processes consume considerable energy and produce toxic byproducts. Carter started a Synthetic Fuels Corporation to guarantee loans for enterprises such as an immense coal-gasification pant in Beulah, N.D.
- Get more electricity from nuclear power. However, Carter shut down nuclear-fuel reprocessing, so that more power required mining and milling more uranium ore. Uranium prices had already tripled from 1973 to 1975; under Carter they doubled.
Claim stakes sprouted all over the West, while big companies like Cyprus announced huge projects in what had been remote mountain valleys.
- Obtain oil from America's immense shale-oil reserves in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. To that end, Carter offered subsidies and price guarantees. Under Carter's plan, 600,000 tons of Colorado oil shale would have been mined every day in 1990 to produce 400,000 barrels of oil.
Exxon promised to produce shale oil without subsidies -- something like 8 million barrels of oil a day, which meant moving 12 million tons of rock every day while consuming huge amounts of water that had once gone to agriculture.
And to make sure all this happened, no matter what people on the ground thought, Carter proposed an "energy mobilization board" that "will have the responsibility and authority to cut through the red tape, the delays, and the endless roadblocks to completing key energy projects. We will protect the environment. But when this nation critically needs a new refinery or a pipeline, we will build it."
In other words, Carter supported what Edward Abbey described as "The Second Rape of the West." Dick Lamm, then Colorado's governor, responded this way: "Colorado is not willing, today or ever, to become a sacrifice zone." A big part of Carter's plan to reduce oil imports was to plunder the West, no matter what the locals thought about it.
Carter's grand plans fizzled for many reasons, from Three Mile Island to a petroleum glut, long before the West could be fully sacrificed. But the Rocky Mountain West still bears the scars: The old uranium mill down the river from me is now a Superfund site.
At any rate, the next time you hear "Drill here. Drill now. Pay less," you might reply, "Been there. Tried that. Didn't work."