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Misinformation and Scare Tactics

By Jimmy Carter

The Washington Post. DO NOT REPRINT WITHOUT PERMISSION. Copyright© The Carter Center.

It has been more than 20 years since our country developed a comprehensive energy policy. It is important for President Bush and Congress to take another look at this important issue, but not based on misleading statements made lately by high administration officials. These comments have distorted history and future needs.

I was governor of Georgia during the administration of Richard Nixon, when a combination of oil shortages and an OPEC boycott produced a real energy crisis in the United States. Five years later, the Iran-Iraq war shut off 4 million barrels of the orld's daily oil supplies almost overnight, and the price of energy more than doubled in just 12 months. This caused a wave of inflation in all industrialized countries and created energy shortages. As before, there were long lines of vehicles at service stations, with drivers eager to pay even astronomical prices for available fuel.

No energy crisis exists now that equates in any way with those we faced in 1973 and 1979. World supplies are adequate and reasonably stable, price fluctuations are cyclical, reserves are plentiful, and automobiles aren't waiting in line at service stations. Exaggerated claims seem designed to promote some long-frustrated ambitions of the oil industry at the expense of environmental quality.

Also contrary to recent statements by top officials, a bipartisan Congress worked closely with me for four years to create a well-balanced approach to the problem. No influential person ever spoke "exclusively of conservation," and my administration never believed that "we could simply conserve or ration our way out of" any energy crisis. On the contrary, we emphasized both energy conservation and the increased production of oil, gas, coal and solar energy.

Permanent laws were laboriously hammered out that brought an unprecedented commitment to efficient use of energy supplies. We mandated improved home insulation, energy savings in the design of industrial equipment and home appliances and a step-by-step increase in gas mileage of all automobiles manufactured in our country.

When I was inaugurated, American vehicles were averaging only 12 miles per gallon. Today, new cars reach more than twice this gas mileage, which would be much higher except for the failure to maintain the efficiency standards, beginning in the Reagan years. (Gas mileage has actually gone down during the past five years.)

Official statistics published by the departments of energy and labor reveal the facts: Since I signed the final energy bills in 1980, America's gross national product has increased by 90 percent, while total energy consumption went up only 26 percent. Our emphasis on coal and other sources of energy and improved efficiency has limited petroleum consumption to an increase of only 12 percent. During this time, non-energy prices have risen 2 1/2 times as much as energy prices, and gasoline prices have actually declined by 41 percent, in real terms and even including the temporary surge in the past two years.

Although these energy conservation decisions have been criticized as "a sign of [my] personal virtue," it is clear that the benefits have resulted from a commitment to improved technology, with extremely beneficial results for American consumers, business and commerce. Top executives in the oil industry should acknowledge their tremendous freedom to explore, extract and market oil and gas products that resulted from the decisions made by Congress during my term in Washington.

In fact, our most difficult legislative battle was over the deregulation of oil and gas prices, designed so that competitive prices would both discourage the waste of energy and promote exploration for new sources of petroleum products. At the end of 1980, every available drilling rig in the United States was being utilized at full capacity, and dependence on foreign imports was falling rapidly.

Despite these facts, some officials are using misinformation and scare tactics to justify such environmental atrocities as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which I signed in December 1980, approved 100 percent of the offshore areas and 95 percent of the potentially productive oil and mineral areas for exploration or for drilling. We excluded the wildlife refuge, confirming a decision first made by President Dwight Eisenhower, when Alaska became a state in 1959, to set aside this area as a precious natural heritage.

Those who advocate drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to meet current needs are careful to conceal the facts that almost none of the electricity in energy-troubled California is generated from oil.

It is important for private citizens and organizations to know the facts and to join in the coming debates -- so we can continue the policies of the late 1970s: a careful balance between production and conservation.

Former president Carter is chairman of the Carter Center in Atlanta.