About that "Energy Independence" President Carter...

By Lisa Margonelli

Oh how I love the daffy honesty of Jimmy Carter. I was in fifth or sixth grade when he introduced me to the highly advanced concept of "lust in the heart," later followed by understanding the macroeconomic impact of "wearing a sweater."  (I'm not belittling those concepts--in the long run neither can be ignored.) And it was he who followed Nixon's lead and told the US that we needed to change the way we used energy.

Carter's presidency is often described as either profoundly unlucky or failed, but on the subject of energy his impact had the stuff of greatness, which unfortunately arrived long after he left office. Since 1973 the US has met 75 % of our new energy needs through energy efficiency, a profound change in economic productivity that has saved us money, pollution, and avoided environmental and political risk. He also ushered in a period of oil conservation that basically knocked the knees out of OPEC's oil prices from the early 80's to the late 90's, though another force keeping the oil prices low was the evolution of the international oil market. If we put presidential faces on household objects the way we put them on coins, we'd have Jimmy on our gas caps. Still, every president avoids doing what he did because they don't want "to end up like Jimmy Carter."

So I read with dismay about Carter's appearance in front of John Kerry's Armed Services Committee, where he talked about the need for "energy independence."

Energy Independence is a political term, but not a reality. The US has 3 percent of the worlds' oil reserves, and we use 24 percent of world's production with just 4-5 percent of the population. We've been committed to an industrial policy and a foreign policy built around oil imports since the 1930's, though we didn't really get into the soup until Roosevelt struck the Big Deal with Saudi Arabia in the early 1940's. Alternative sources of energy currently make up a pitifully small part of our energy mix.

There is no strategy I can imagine where we become "energy independent" (and hey, it's not like we're "deck chair independent," or "silicon chip independent.") What I can imagine, and fervently hope for is that we become more competitive, lower carbon, and more strategic--in that we use alternative fuels and our own resources to build leverage in energy markets while investing in research, technology and behavior changes to give us more breathing room. But to get there we'll need a more productive goal than energy independence.

 And while we're at it, we need to look carefully at the international clout we've gained --and the economic and environmental hassles and costs we may have avoided--by being energy dependent.

Nattering on about the glamorous goal of energy independence is a political way for Jimmy Carter to avoid being Jimmy Carter and telling the bad news. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/05/about-that-energy-independence-president-carter/17610/