If Only We Had Re-Elected Jimmy Carter

By Bill Moore

Posted: 10 Jun 2010

I don't know if Mercedes-Benz and Smart USA planned it this way, but the irony of the introduction of the Smart EV in Brooklyn, New York this week is illustrated by the above photo of one of the dozen smart EVs lined up along Union Street between 6th and 7th, just across the East River from lower Manhattan, where once stood the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Just across the street is the firehouse of Squad Co. 1 of the Brooklyn fire department. Just to the right of the firehouse garage door stands a wooden sculpture depicting three firemen appearing to be separated by a wall. At the base of the life-sized sculpture are two metal plaques on which are inscribed the names of 343 New York firefighters and paramedics who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 in the collapse of the World Trade Center, following the impact of two jetliners believed to have been hijacked by Saudi citizens recruited by the Al Queda terrorist organization. Squad Co. 1 lost 12 of its 27 members that day.

In looking at the names on those plaques, I couldn't help but reflect that those men might be alive today and enjoying the line-up of all these fun little white and green smarts across Union Street from their firehouse had America re-elected Jimmy Carter in 1980, instead of Ronald Reagan. It was the "Gipper" who effectively gutted the nation's renewable energy research program, forcing wind and solar energy research to shift to Europe. Germany and Denmark, in particular, are now the world leaders in both technologies, though India and China are both coming on strong.

Given impetus by the 1973 Arab oil embargo, Carter's efforts to begin to wean America off its dependence on fossil fuels, especially imported oil, ground to a halt. The fall of the Shah of Iran, the take-over of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, not only precipitated yet another oil shock, but also proved Carter's undoing, with the connivance of Republican politicians who reportedly cut a secret deal with the Iranians to not release the hostages until the day of Reagan's inauguration. Regardless of the back room politics, the Iranian oil embargo only reemphasized how vulnerable America was to oil blackmail.

But instead of continuing and accelerating America's R&D efforts in renewable energy and improved vehicle efficiency, the United States simply changed and diversified suppliers, decreasing its reliance on Middle Eastern oil, importing more oil from Mexico, Nigeria, and even Russia, as well as moving offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

Our antagonistic relationship with the Iran of the Ayatollah's meant the Reagan Administration eventually threw its support behind Saddam Hussein's regime when he decided to attack Iran the fall of 1980 in an effort to stem the growing influence of the newly ensconced Khomeini theocracy. It also meant that the US was finding itself being inextricably sucked even deeper into the maelstrom of Middle Eastern politics, culminating in the first Persian Gulf War under Reagan's successor, George H. W. Bush, and the establishment of a permanent U.S. military presence in the region, igniting the fuse to the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993. That effort failed, but demonstrated that these two symbols of American economic hegemony weren't impregnable. It would just require a more creative and destructive approach to the problem.

The answer came on that fateful day in September when multiple alarm calls began to come from firefighters in Manhattan's financial district, just across the Brooklyn Bridge, three-and-a-half miles away. Squad Co. 1 sent their Seagrave pumper truck and their twelve on-duty firefighters, who would never return to Union Street or their homes in the surrounding neighborhoods that I would drive through on Tuesday in a nimble, quiet, petroleum-free automobile, developed in Europe, of course.

What if America had kept Carter's pledge to no longer be held hostage of oil politics? When he took office in 1977, America was importing 48% of its oil, but by the time he left office, his policies had shrunk this to 40%, a drop of 1.8 million barrels a day. Six months before the start of the Iraq-Iran war, Carter came within a hair's breadth of getting important energy legislation passed.

By April 1980, he had gotten much of his second energy package through, including a Crude Oil Windfall Profits Tax (with revenues designated for the general Treasury but not for specific energy projects), which would expire in 1993 or before, if the full amount of $227 billion had been collected. But there were two major defeats: Congress overrode a presidential veto of a bill that Congress had passed repealing a $4.62 per barrel oil import fee -- the first time in twenty-eight years that a Congress had overridden a veto by a president from the majority party. It also defeated the Energy Mobilization Board that Carter had proposed to cut through "red tape" in developing new sources of energy

Source: Miller Center.

We were clearly headed in the right direction, but all that changed that fateful November in 1980. This isn't to say that Jimmy Carter was a better President than Reagan or his successors -- after all, it was also Carter who created the "doctrine" that would lead to the first Gulf War --but he certainly had a far better grasp of the implications of our dependence on petroleum, both foreign and domestic, than his successors, and, apparently, the United States Congress.

Now, here we are thirty years later, an out-of-control oil well destroying life in and along the U.S. Gulf Coast, the skyline of Lower Manhattan a pale reflection of its previous glory, and more than 3,000 innocent civilians and firefighters dead -- not to mention those lost in the Second Gulf War and subsequent occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. We are still hostage to petroleum.

Which is maybe why, as I drove the smart EV around Brooklyn this week, down streets lined bumper-to-bumper with parked gasoline-burners, I got a "thumbs up" from a delivery van driver as I turned the corner at Union and 4th Avenue. He noticed the 'Electric Drive' decal on the side of the little car and wanted to express his support. Maybe one of those firefighters was a relative; maybe not. But they were part of America's family, just like the 11 roughnecks who lost their lives on Deepwater Horizon, and the shrimpers, the fishing boat captains, and hotel operators and restaurateurs whose livelihoods are being decimated by BP's callous disregard for safety.

As long as we continue to be hostages of oil, we can expect to lose other family members, be they firefighters, oil riggers, American soldiers, and office workers. As the sign above the firehouse door states, we will not forget them, but let's make sure we don't have to sacrifice any more of our family to feed our addiction. That little smart proves we can get by without this reddish black goo. We just have to have the courage to make it so.

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