Carter’s Powerless Energy Policy

National Energy Plan

by The Executive Office of the President, Energy Policy and Planning
Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, 103 pp., $1.50

James Schlesinger
James Schlesinger; drawing by David Levine

The national energy program produced by President Carter and now dispatched to Congress for legislative action has been moderately well received. It is likely to go through many changes in the battles in Congress that lie ahead, but nearly everyone agrees that some form of over-all national strategy was needed, if for nothing else than to promote a serious debate.

We should say forthrightly that we regard the plan as very seriously flawed. It fails entirely to confront the power of the oil industry. It fails to promote any serious change in the automotive culture of the country. It proposes drastic and undemocratic changes in the administration of energy policies. It makes a fundamental error in relying on the use of the tax code as a method of inducing change. It almost certainly will result in increased profits for the energy companies at the expense of consumers, who will have to pay higher prices. Most sorely affected will be the poor.

The President’s plan attempts to set forth ways of reducing demand for energy and of starting in a systematic way to move the economy away from its dependence on oil to other fuels—coal, nuclear, and, in the distant future, such sources as solar energy. Thus it focuses extensively on conservation. It also attempts to propose new policies to hasten changes in the use of fuel. Here the President has relied extensively on the tax system and on increased administrative powers.

Novel though it may appear, the program must be seen in its historical setting. For the last decade or so the major energy companies have themselves been responding to strong historical currents. They have begun to concentrate on coal and nuclear resources within the United States as their domination of foreign sources of oil wanes. The tendencies of the industry have been clear enough. But to accomplish their goal, the energy companies have required the assistance and sanction of the federal government. What they have wanted is a clear federal policy emphasizing growth in coal and in nuclear power; higher prices for natural gas which they have considered to be at artificially low levels; reduction of environmental constraints; off-shore drilling; importation of liquefied natural gas; development of synthetic fuels; and in general a firm commitment by the government to endorse these endeavors and desires.

At the very time that the energy industry has been articulating and trying to implement this policy, other political interests have been making themselves felt. The environmentalists, a politically significant force, have argued for energy conservation and strict safeguards. Consumer organizations and labor unions have struggled to keep fuel cheap, and as the question of energy has become increasingly visible Congress has become an arena for fighting out various policies.

Carter’s program has been hailed as an axe cleaving through this knot of conflicting interests. It has been regarded as a balanced and judicious compromise, going…

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