If you’re opposed to one or all of the three natural gas pipelines proposed to run through this part of Virginia, who should you blame?
The energy companies, who are trying to make a buck (or many bucks) by sucking natural gas out of the ground and selling it to whomever they can?
State Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, who sponsored the state law that gives pipeline companies the right to go onto your land to survey whether you like it or not?
Or the geological forces that trapped natural gas within the Marcellus shale formation some 400 million years ago?
You could blame all three and you wouldn’t be wrong. You could also blame Jimmy Carter.
Yes, that Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains who became the 39th president of the United States— and set in motion a series of events that have led to natural gas companies today wanting to lay a pipeline under your property.
This is not quite “the butterfly effect” — the theory that a butterfly’s beating wings might lead to something happening on the other side of the world. This is more like the direct consequence of public policy decisions made nearly four decades ago.
When Carter was elected in 1976, we’d just lived through the Watergate scandal — but also the 1973 Arab oil embargo that focused Americans’ attention (for a while, anyway) on the goal of “energy independence.”
Not yet three months in office, Carter gave a famous speech in which he called the nation’s energy crisis “the moral equivalent of war.”
Carter laid out 10 principles, which were heavy on conservation. He was big on turning down thermostats, putting on sweaters and racheting up gas mileage for cars. He wanted more solar energy, and famously put solar panels on the White House (which Ronald Reagan later took down). He wanted oil companies to pay more taxes. He also wanted to burn more coal. As in, a lot of coal. He specifically called for a two-thirds increase in coal production. No Republicans ever accused Carter of waging a “war on coal.” (They accused him of plenty of other things, mind you.)
Carter also pushed for, and quickly got Congress to create, a Department of Energy. Republicans didn’t think much of that. To them, that was just more big government. In the 1980 presidential debates, Reagan vowed to abolish the new department, arguing that it “hasn’t produced a quart of oil or a lump of coal, or anything else in the line of energy.”
He didn’t, of course, and his charge was both true and off the mark. The Energy Department isn’t in the extraction business. But it is sometimes in the business of helping the extractionists. And helping do what Carter set out to do, which was to achieve energy independence — although the Washington & Jefferson College Energy Index reports that we were actually more independent under Carter than we are now. We were close to 80 percent independent then. We dropped as low as 70 percent in 2005-6. Now we’re back up to 74 percent independent.
Which brings us to fracking, the shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, the kind of drilling that has in the past decade turned Pennsylvania (and neighboring states that sit on top of Marcellus shale) into the Saudi Arabia of natural gas, and the United States into the world’s biggest natural gas producer. (And made us a few percentage points more energy independent, which has been something both parties have said they wanted.)
Fracking — which involves pumping water and a secret sauce of chemicals into the ground to break the rocks and release the gas trapped inside — isn’t new. It was first used in 1947 in a gas field in Kansas and spread to other sandstone formations out West.
But shale is different, geologically speaking, and the drilling methods that worked fine on the plains didn’t necessarily work well in the Alleghanies.
And that’s where Jimmy Carter comes back in.
One of the first research projects the newly formed Energy Department funded was the Eastern Gas Shales Project, which looked into ways to exploit the shale formations on the East Coast.
Technically, that project began in 1976 under the Energy Research and Development Administration — so maybe you can blame Gerald Ford, if you want. But it was Carter’s Energy Department (which absorbed that agency) that really pushed the project and laid the groundwork for the shale fracking that is going on today.
A recent article in the Huffington Post quotes an energy executive praising that early research, saying the Energy Department “did a hell of a lot of work, and I can’t give them enough credit for that. DOE started it, and other people took the ball and ran with it. You cannot diminish the DOE’s involvement.”
Want to know why Republicans never carried through on their threat to abolish the Energy Department? Edward Goldberg, who teaches at both City University in New York and New York University, says it’s because the department has wound up aiding those same oil (and gas) companies that Carter wanted to tax:
“There is a saying that America talks like Jefferson but acts like Hamilton. In other words, while Americans say they want government out of industry and individual enterprise, in reality government action spurs the economy. Whether developing the Erie Canal, railroads, airplanes or the internet, the American government often acts as the original [venture capital] for private innovation. Since the 1970s the federal government has spent over 100 million dollars funding basic research into fracking . . . .”
So, yes, you can indirectly blame Carter for those pipelines. Or maybe even Richard Nixon, whose support of Israel in the 1973 war led to the Arab oil embargo in the first place. Or the Arab oil-producing nations for enacting that embargo. Or, more broadly, any politician who has talked up why the United States should become energy independent.
The Energy Department was created by The Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977. Or, as some might prefer now, the Law of Unintended Consequences. But it’s really more the Law of Intended Consequences.