Thursday, July 30, 2009

Looking for someone to blame for U.S. dependence on foreign oil? How about Ronald Reagan?

"Had Reagan left those CAFE standards in place, and the US had continued to conserve oil at the same rate as it had from 1979-85, the US today would be importing not a single drop of oil from the Persian Gulf." - Paul Abrams in his September 3, 2008 article "There is a 'Villain' In Our Dependence on Foreign Oil and His Name is Ronald Reagan." The article says:
Republicans in Minnesota have become born-again alternative-energy zealots, not to save the planet from global warming (their VP candidate does not believe that man's activities contribute to the problem), but for another laudable goal, eliminating our dependence on foreign sources of energy. At least they get that part of it.

At the same time, in nearly every other phrase, the Republicans will praise Ronald Reagan in worshipful terms. They will attempt to be courteous to the 2 George Bushes, but will immediately cover themselves by referencing Reagan. Indeed, as soon as George W finished his speech yesterday praising John McCain, the convention cut to a picture of Reagan. God is alive and well in St. Paul.

Yet, if there were a single major villain responsible for our dependence on foreign oil it is Ronald Reagan himself.

During the rise in the oil prices following the Iranian revolution, President Jimmy Carter announced policies that would prevent the US from ever importing a single drop of oil more per year than in 1979. The program included subsidies for alternative energies and serial increases in the efficiency (C.A.F.E. = corporate average fuel economy) standards for automobiles

Carter called it, presciently, "the moral equivalent of war". Anyone today doubting Carter's insight? Any takers at the Republican National Convention?

Regrettably, a Republican PR operation realized that the acronym spelled out "m.e.o.w", and they pounced on the program using "meow" to ridicule it. Ronald Reagan then convinced the American people that conservation was beneath them, and he not only cut the subsidies, he also phased out the CAFE standards.

It may bear repeating the obvious: every gallon of oil saved by efficiency is a gift that keeps on giving, year-after-year another gallon is not burned. By contrast every gallon produced is used once, and is then gone forever. Of course, oil companies do not make money when you do not burn that gallon every year.

And, now, the tragic truth: had Reagan left those CAFE standards in place, and the US had continued to conserve oil at the same rate as it had from 1979-85, the US today would be importing not a single drop of oil from the Persian Gulf. Not one. Zilch. Zorch. Nada. (See, e.g., Amory Lovins, "Energy Security Facts", Rocky Mountain Institute).

Imagine what benefits there would have been had Reagan not used the Iranian situation for partisan political gain. Start with Detroit. Instead of being far behind the efficiency curve, and losing out to foreign competitors (from countries where the price of gasoline was higher, and thus were producing higher efficiency engines), US automakers would be healthy, and right in the thick of it. Employment levels would be up in Michigan, and high wage jobs would be growing not shrinking. Add to that US ingenuity, and we may well have been the leaders in the world in fuel-efficient and/or alternative energy using automobiles.

Jump now to our foreign debt. Instead of being beholden to close allies like China to hold (and not demand payment) of our debt, our balance of payments would be, if not positive, at least not nearly so negative. The dollar would be higher, as countries would have more confidence in the greenback's value.

Consider our foreign policy. We would no longer be at the mercy of rogue nations, and those countries would not have the resources to support their terrorist activities and their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. To be sure, North Korea and Pakistan, and even Israel, have shown that even poor nations can develop nuclear weapons, but North Korea has done so in part because they believe there is a potential market for their technology among the oil-producing states and Pakistan was likely funded by Libya and other oil-producers. Israel was aided by France. Without dealing in absolutes, we can confidently assert that the world would have been a far less dangerous place.

Consider health. Our air would be cleaner. Asthma rates in children have doubled almost every decade, and asthmatic attacks have become a major cause of absences among schoolchildren. Large populations of young children chronically inhale steroids to prevent such asthmatic attacks.

Oh yes, what about the small matter of global warming? Let us just say that our challenges in preventing future catastrophe would be far less daunting. To warm the cockles of Republicans' hearts, Al Gore may never have won the Nobel Prize.

Ronald Reagan does not deserve all the blame. Having outflanked the Democrats politically on both energy and tax policy, the progressive impulse among the opposition vanished with Reagan's landslide victory in 1984. Bush, always trying to ape Reagan to outdo his father, managed to cancel the remaining tax-credits for purchasing hybrid cars, weakened efficiency standards for nearly everything, provided enormous tax breaks for Hummers and other gas-guzzlers.

Outside the Republican convention, however, that victory rings very hollow 25 years, two World Trade Center towers and two Persian Gulf Wars later.

The next time you fork out $50 to fill your tank with gas, or send your son or daughter off to Iraq, thank Ronald Reagan (with a tip of the hat to George W Bush).

A similar account of this story occurs on pages 14-16 of Thomas L. Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

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