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Bob Dinneen: The Days of Energy Malaise Are Over

July 11th, 2009, 03:07 am admin Leave a comment Go to comments

Wednesday, July 15th, marks the 30th anniversary of President Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech.

As with many historic events, this speech was very different from the disaster that we now remember. First, Carter didn’t use the word “malaise” even once in the speech. Second, his ratings in the public opinion polls went up after the speech. Third, it was largely about the energy crisis of the summer of ‘79 when Iran held U.S. hostages, OPEC restricted our oil supplies, and Americans were waiting in long lines at the gas stations.

Carter deserves credit for calling for decreasing our dependence on imported oil. As Americans learned when gasoline prices skyrocketed last summer — and as we’re reminded whenever Hugo Chavez or the Iranian ayatollahs threaten our petroleum supplies — it is still costly and risky to rely on oil imported from unstable countries with unfriendly governments.

“Malaise” is better than denial. When Carter addressed the nation 30 years ago, he warned that “almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries, at prices that are going through the roof.” Now, nearly two-thirds of our oil is imported, at prices that are riding a roller coaster.

So when are we going to wake up to the fact that our dependence on imported oil is worse than in the days of malaise? And what are we going to do about it?

For all his courage in calling attention to the problem, some of Carter’s prescriptions now seem just as dated as disco, pet rocks, and mood rings.

Back in 1979, Carter called for the country to “switch to other fuels, especially coal, our most abundant energy source.” But now, as the Congress debates energy and climate change legislation, most policymakers see coal’s carbon emissions as a major contributor to carbon emissions and global warming.

More prophetically, Carter also called for “twenty percent of our energy coming from solar power by the year 2000.” That is still a worthy goal. But, while solar, wind, and geothermal energy can generate electrical power, it would be costly and cumbersome for these energy sources to produce the electricity that would then power a significant share of the nation’s cars, trucks, buses and other vehicles.

That leaves an energy source that Carter didn’t mention, but supported, that was emerging in the late ’70’s — biofuels, especially ethanol produced from corn and other grains. During the final year of the Carter Administration, the new domestic ethanol industry produced only 175 million gallons.

Last year, the U.S. ethanol industry produced more than 9 billion gallons of fuel, reducing oil imports by 321.4 million barrels. This year, we will produce more than 10 billion gallons. That’s bad news for OPEC and good news for the USA.

Creating good-paying jobs is just as much of a concern now as it was during the economic stagnation of the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. From a handful of factories employing a few hundred workers, the U.S. ethanol industry has grown to nearly 200 biorefineries that support almost half a million jobs.

Not only in terms of energy independence and economic growth but also environmentally, ethanol is a success story. Academic studies show that ethanol produces far fewer carbon emissions than petroleum products, and ethanol production is reducing its own consumption of water, electricity and other energy sources and natural resources.

Thirty years after the grain ethanol industry emerged, the U.S. ethanol industry is beginning to produce fuels from “cellulosic” (non-grain) feedstocks, including grasses, woodchips, and even garbage. As our new President Barack Obama has explained, grain ethanol is still essential because the “transition to [the next generation] will be successful only if the first-generation biofuels industry remains viable in the near term.”

Maybe if President Carter — and all Americans 30 years ago — had foreseen this promising part of the energy future, no one would have talked about “malaise.” If we keep producing more and better biofuels, Americans thirty years from now will look back on today’s Americans with gratitude, not grief.

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