Oil: We were warned 34 years ago

Posted on March 7, 2011


One has to wonder where our nation’s energy policy and prices would be now if the Republican-controlled Congress hadn’t publically mocked, laughed at and ignored President Jimmy Carter in 1977 with his plan to force expedited development of alternative energy (solar, wind, electric) and thereby eliminate – or at the very least, drastically reduce – the United States dependence on foreign oil … perhaps we wouldn’t be facing these “oil crises” every five years or so.

But no, the greed and avarice of oil executives, car manufacturing executives, their lobbyists and their bought-and-paid-for political puppets was – and remains – more important than U.S. energy independence or the financial burden on the non-millionaire American taxpayer.

Take, for example, if research & development of solar energy technology had been commensurate with cellular phone technology since 1977.

In 1977, “cellular” phones had 30-mile range because they were based on the same tech as military walkie-talkies. Cell phones weighed approximately 8 pounds, and usable battery life was approximately 1.12 hours from a full charge.  Today, cell phones have nearly global range, weigh between 2 and 8 ounces and have a usable battery life of 29.2 hours.

The false argument that “solar is inefficient” is because the industry is effectively using the same technology it had four decades ago because funding toward its research hasn’t had the bottomless pit of federal funding that oil subsidies have enjoyed.

I’ll use one of my favorite targets, Exxon, to illustrate.

In 1977, Exxon’s net profit was $11.1 Billion augmented by federal subsidies of $18.6 Billion. In 2010, Exxon’s net profit was $383 billion augmented by federal subsidies of $274 Billion.

In 1977, federal investment in solar energy was $2.8 Billion augmented by federal subsidies $502,000. In 2010, federal investment in solar energy was $13.9 Billion augmented by federal subsidies of $3.9 Billion.

From 1977 to 2010, Exxon’s profits increased 3,450 percent and subsidies increased 1,473 percent.

From 1977 to 2010, solar energy funding increased 400 percent and subsidies increased 78 percent.

Each day, the United States is responsible for 25% of the world’s oil consumption, despite holding only 5% of the world’s population. With the emergence of other industrial nations such as China and India, the oil extraction rate is reaching nearly 1,000 barrels per second.

Solar power is generated using free sun energy as the source. This source is infinite and the power generated is renewable. Once oil is burned, then you have to dig more oil out of the ground, transported huge distances and then dig more to replace the oil burned. It’s that whole concept of “free energy” that has been the stake through the heart of America’s political aversion to alternative energy. Solar energy is to an oil executive what a crucifix is to Dracula. And what a fitting analogy it is to liken oil executives to vampires.

Consider that Carter’s April 18, 1977 speech on the country’s first national energy policy: It established the strategic petroleum reserve, birthed the modern solar power industry, led to the insulation of millions of American homes, and detailed the specific, long-range threats that continued oil dependency presented to the country.

“With the exception of preventing war,” said Carter, “this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us. The most important thing about these proposals is that the alternative may be a national catastrophe. Further delay can affect our strength and our power as a nation. This new energy policy is the ‘moral equivalent of war’ — except that we will be uniting our efforts to build instead of destroy.”

When Carter had become president three months earlier, the nation was still recovering from the “oil shock” of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, and scientists were reaching the conclusion that our nation was just then hitting the point of domestic peak oil production that had been predicted more than a decade earlier by Dr. M. King Hubbert. As Carter noted in his speech, “The oil and natural gas we rely on for 75 percent of our energy are running out. In spite of increased effort, domestic production has been dropping steadily at about six percent a year. Imports have doubled in the last five years. Our nation’s independence of economic and political action is becoming increasingly constrained.” Hubbert predicted that the peak of oil production for the USA would come in the 1970s. The “Energy Crisis” hit in late 1978.

“The world has not prepared for the future,” Carter said. “During the 1950s, people used twice as much oil as during the 1940s. During the 1960s, we used twice as much as during the 1950s. And in each of those decades, more oil was consumed than in all of mankind’s previous history. Ours is the most wasteful nation on earth. We waste more energy than we import. With about the same standard of living, we use twice as much energy per person as do other countries like Germany, Japan and Sweden. One choice is to continue doing what we have been doing before. We can drift along for a few more years. Our consumption of oil would keep going up every year. Our cars would continue to be too large and inefficient. Three-quarters of them would continue to carry only one person — the driver — while our public transportation system continues to decline. We can continue using scarce oil and natural gas to generate electricity, and continue wasting two-thirds of that fuel value in the process.”

Carter declared that 1977 was a turning point for America. If we didn’t make clear and rapid progress, we would face painful times ahead. The Saudis would have their fingers around our necks. We’d face war in the Middle East to secure future oil supplies. Americans had a choice.

“But if we wait,” Carter said, “we will live in fear of embargoes. We could endanger our freedom as a sovereign nation to act in foreign affairs. If we continue to simply follow past policies that enriched the oil industry and the Saudis, instead of becoming energy independent, we will feel mounting pressure to plunder the environment. If we fail to act soon, we will face an economic, social and political crisis that will threaten our free institutions.”

Big surprise: Carter’s speech drew a strong, fiercely negative reactions from the Saudis and the oil industry.

“We can be sure that all the special interest groups in the country will attack the part of this plan that affects them directly,” Carter said. “They will say that sacrifice is fine, as long as other people do it, but that their sacrifice is unreasonable, or unfair, or harmful to the country, or harmful to the free market. If they succeed, then the burden on the ordinary citizen, who is not organized into an interest group, will be crushing.”

So Jimmy Carter may have been a lot of things as President, but ignorant or lacking vision about America’s energy future aren’t on the list.

Perhaps if we’d listened then, we wouldn’t be screwed now.