Cheney has never learned the lessons about energy.
By Ralph Maughan. Ph. D

Vice President Cheney argues for a massive effort to develop traditional energy sources, and dismisses "conservation, 1970s-era thinking."

Many people don't recall that Cheney was President Gerald Ford's Chief of Staff in 1975. It was Ford who announced "Project Energy Independence" to make the United States self- sufficient in energy. Ford's plan relied entirely on production of new energy. 

Development of supply and the strong conservation measures over the next decade did indeed reduce U.S. reliance on foreign sources, but never came close to self-sufficiency. Most of the  improvement in the U.S. energy picture came with President Jimmy Carter after Ford and Cheney were out of office. Carter's efforts to increase supply through measures such as coal gasification were billion dollar boondoggles, but conservation made the difference -- not the difficult conservation of privation, but conservation prompted by greater efficiency of energy use due to technological improvements in design. Part of the conservation was the result of government programs, but much came from better products due to market demand for more efficient vehicles, appliances, and more insulation.

If Cheney thinks conservation is 70s thinking, it shows he learned nothing in the 1970s and  the bad advice he gave President Ford, preparing the way to power for Democratic President Jimmy Carter in the election of 1976.

Energy production produces more of what economists call "negative externalities" than just about any other economic activity. Negative externalities are unintended harmful side-effects from an economic endeavor that are borne by those who are not part of the economic transaction. Because of enormous negative side effects that will flow from such a massive production program, intense political conflict is guaranteed. Greater efficiency of use would be politically much easier because of fewer externalities. It might also cost less per unit of energy than production of new energy. That was true in the 1970s, and would likely be true today, especially because conservation programs were abandoned in the Reagan Administration, although those underway bore handsome fruit and the price of oil collapsed due to lessened demand for oil.

Cheney seems to think conservation is privation and moralistic rituals like turning off lights and doing without. That difficult kind of conservation is what will we get this summer from the failures of deregulation and Northwestern drought. True conservation flows from technological improvement, something the United States is much better at than developing traditional sources of new energy.

Conservation came into its own in the 1970s, but it is also the 21st Century solution. Cheney's plan shows he is truly a child of the 50s, the time from whence our energy problem came. In the 50s, Big Oil and its politicians pursued a "drain America first" policy.

The high price of energy at the present will call forth more supply, but that price will also reduce demand through conservation, and more so as time passes and more efficient products are built and purchased.

May 1, 2001 . . . RM