Production vs. conservation sounds like "back to the future." The debate over energy policy is one we've had before, during the energy crisis of the 1970s. But this time, the debate is peculiarly shaping up as one between the Bush Administration and the Carter Administration.
In 1979, President Carter told the country: "The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our nation. These are facts, and we simply must face them." Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney called the energy situation "a storm cloud forming over the economy." He added: "America's reliance on energy, and fossil fuels in particular, has lately taken on an urgency not felt since the late 1970s."
Carter's solution back then was to propose "a bold conservation program to involve every state, county and city, and every American citizen, in our energy battle.... I ask Congress to give me authority for mandatory conservation and for standby gasoline rationing."
Ronald Reagan and other Republicans scoffed at the idea that the answer to what they saw as a failure of government was more government. That same contempt could be heard in Cheney's remarks 22 years later: "The aim here is efficiency, not austerity. We all remember the energy crisis of the 1970s when people in positions of responsibility complained that Americans just used too much energy."
Actually, Carter's complaint went further than that. In what became known as his "malaise" speech of July 15, 1979, Carter claimed that Americans had lost confidence in themselves and in their government.
Cheney's diagnosis is quite different. "Our strategy will recognize that the present crisis does not represent a failing of the American people," he declared. Cheney, instead, blamed the government: "The potential crisis we face is largely the result of shortsighted domestic policies—or, as in recent years, no policy at all."
Cheney's message was: Get real; Americans are not going to change their way of life. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue," the Vice President argued, "but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."
Scientists at five national laboratories disagree. Their report to the Energy Department, based on three years of study, contends that new technology and aggressive steps to encourage conservation could reduce the growth in energy demand between 20 percent and 47 percent.
Cheney contended that the country will require at least 1,300 new power plants over the next 20 years, or more than one new plant per week. The scientists claim that conservation could reduce the number of new power plants needed to between 700 and 1,000. Cheney chose to rely on Energy Department economists rather than on scientists. In the economists' view, the efficiency gains projected by the scientists may not be economically feasible.
For example, the Clinton Administration mandated new standards aimed at raising the energy efficiency of washing machines by 35 percent. But the energy-efficient machines are so expensive that consumers are unlikely to realize a savings unless they use the machines more than once a day for 14 years.
Cheney's proposal includes more energy production, especially from coal ("still the most plentiful source of affordable energy in this country") and from nuclear power ("one form of technology that causes zero emissions of greenhouse gases").
There are certainly similarities between the energy problem now and that of the 1970s. The United States has become even more dependent on foreign oil in the intervening years. And Americans have returned to their wasteful habits. Notice how many mothers are ferrying their kids around the suburbs in what look like armored personnel carriers.
But the differences between today and 22 years ago are more striking. The 1970s saw real shortages of supply. Now, nobody's talking about running out of oil. The problem this time is a shortage of refining capacity.
What we learned in the 1970s is that bureaucratic rationing does not work very well in this country, except in wartime. Instead, we ration such things as gasoline and electricity by price. If there's a shortage, the price goes up. Then voters want government to do something. OK, Cheney said, we'll stimulate production.
That solution creates a political problem for the Bush Administration. Bush and Cheney come out of the energy industry. A lot of people heard Cheney's remarks as a boondoggle for energy producers.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll asked: "Which is more important to you, protecting the environment or finding new sources of oil and natural gas?" A majority of Americans said protecting the environment. Then the poll asked: "Which do you think is more important to President Bush?" The answer, by 76 percent to 16 percent, was finding new sources of energy.
Americans are suspicious of Bush's priorities, which is why the President had to backtrack from Cheney's remarks and insist that his energy program would take "a balanced approach," in which conservation would play an important role. He even called for turning thermostats in government buildings up in the summer and down in the winter. That, for a moment, made him sound more like Carter than like his own Vice President.