Four decades ago, the movie Star Wars was released and the first Apple II computer went on sale. That same year, 1977, newly-inaugurated President Carter established the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in an attempt to launch a government-inspired tech revolution in energy.
The history of the computer-tech revolution is well storied. Far from exhibiting “irrational exuberance”—as infamously asserted by economist Alan Greenspan in 1996—tech entrepreneurs were not only quite rational, but from the ‘bottom up’ literally created an entirely new kind of infrastructure and permanently transformed society. Policies and institutions have been forced to embrace the implications or be assimilated.
Meanwhile, the history of a top-down policy attempt to effect an energy tech revolution is quite different. But start with the goals.
In April 1977, still in the penumbra of the economic and geopolitical fallout from the 1973/74 Arab oil embargo, President Carter announced the creation of DOE in his “moral equivalent of war” address to the nation. Government action, he said, was needed for “the greatest challenge that our country will face during our lifetime” in order to “balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources.” Carter added that if DOE failed “the alternative may be a national catastrophe.” That was quite a burden for one agency.
Give Carter credit for an enduring legacy in at least this regard: that speech’s “10 fundamental principles” have anchored all energy policies since. The first principle was....
Mark P. Mills is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a faculty fellow at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, and author of Expanding America's Petroleum Power: Geopolitics in the Third Oil Era. Follow him on Twitter here.