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U.S. energy policy: It's complicated

We should be able to come up with a coherent energy strategy -- if only Congress weren't too paralyzed by partisan bickering to enact one.

October 10, 2010

For as clear a sign as you could want of the nation's haphazard approach to energy policy, look no further than the roof of the White House.

In 1979, solar panels blossomed there, installed by President Carter to symbolize his commitment to weaning the country off oil. Seven years later, President Reagan took them down; at the time, a White House spokesman said the panels were in the way of a repair job, but few missed the symbolic significance of the move. President George H.W. Bush later put up a smaller array to heat the White House pool. That was it for presidential photovoltaics until this week, when a pair of senior Obama administration officials announced that new panels would go up to heat water and provide some electricity at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

President Obama is taking a risk by making a symbolic gesture that so clearly links him to Carter, who lost favor with Americans after donning a sweater and urging them to make personal sacrifices for the sake of energy conservation. To many environmentalists, Carter is a hero whose energy initiatives might have saved the nation from its current environmental and economic troubles if they hadn't been mostly dismantled under Reagan. But for conservatives, he was a scold whose ideas were disproved when Reagan's free-market policies seemed to have a bigger role in ending the energy crisis than Carter's attempts at market manipulation. Neither side is entirely right, or wrong. But by now we should have learned enough from the successes and failures of the two presidents to produce a coherent energy strategy — if only Congress weren't too paralyzed by partisan bickering to enact one.

Carter certainly made some mistakes. His green apologists often forget that he was a big booster of coal. His goal was to reduce the nation's reliance on oil and end the price spikes of the 1970s; climate change wasn't yet on the political radar, and few understood that emissions from coal-fired power plants were producing an atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide that was altering the planet's temperature. Hence, Carter backed policies discouraging the use of oil for generating electricity and encouraging coal-fueled power instead. Carter also tried to encourage the extraction of oil from shale, an environmentally disastrous practice.

He also continued to impose price controls that had been established under President Nixon after the Arab oil embargo of 1973. But the federal ceiling on the per-barrel oil price discouraged oil companies from exploring for new supply, thus causing the very shortage of oil that Carter so feared. Reagan quickly eliminated the ceiling, which is part of the reason prices stabilized and remained relatively low for more than two decades afterward. Price controls were so thoroughly discredited that they're seldom mentioned anymore in the national energy debate, for which we have Reagan to thank.

But we're finished criticizing Carter and praising Reagan. Many of Carter's remarks about energy seem prescient today, when global demand for oil is again outstripping supply (a problem temporarily eased but not solved by the economic crisis), the nation's reliance on oil is creating foreign policy nightmares, and we face a climate threat caused by the burning of fossil fuels whose urgency is becoming increasingly clear.

Carter, who created the Department of Energy (which Reagan tried to eliminate), approved generous tax credits for home installation of solar panels, backed groundbreaking energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, encouraged tighter automotive fuel efficiency standards and called for generous federal funding of research into clean-energy alternatives. Much of this was approved by Congress but was almost entirely undone under Reagan, with disastrous consequences.

A booming solar power industry collapsed by the mid-1980s, killed in part by lower prices for electricity that made solar less competitive, but mostly by the elimination of Carter's tax credit. California is trying to jump-start the solar industry again by imposing carbon limits and setting a renewable power standard, none of which would be necessary if the business hadn't been strangled a quarter-century ago. Similarly, had Carter's research initiatives not been defunded by Reagan, it's likely that by now they would have resulted in technological innovations to reduce the price of renewable power and improve efficiency.

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