We've heard the "drill now" drumbeat before

 

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, following Carter would have been 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.

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. Not one of Carter's electoral votes came from the Mountain West. Indeed, 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 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. 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." To do that, President Carter wanted to:

  • Shift electric utilities to coal. 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 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.
  • 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. Uranium prices had already tripled from 1973 to 1975; under Carter they doubled. Claim stakes sprouted all over the West, while companies like Cyprus announced huge projects in what had been remote mountain valleys.
  • Obtain oil from America's shale-oil reserves in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. 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. To make sure all this happened, 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."

Dick Lamm, then Colorado's governor, responded this way: "Colorado is not willing, today or ever, to become a sacrifice zone."

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."

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Salida, Colorado.

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