"An economy in distress, vast natural resources locked up with no plans to put them to use, and a regulatory regime that inhibits the development of resources and the creation of jobs." Sound familiar? These words were written by William Perry Pendley, who served in the Interior Department under Ronald Reagan. They describe the America that Reagan encountered in 1981. But, they could be about 2013.
In his new book, Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan's battle with environmental extremists and why it matters today, Pendley points to the similarities of the economic climate that both Reagan and Obama had to take on at the start of their presidencies.
In a January 15, 2008, interview, candidate Obama correctly observed the outcome of the Reagan era: "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America ... He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. … government had grown and grown but there wasn't much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think he tapped into what people were already feeling. Which is we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing."
In the same interview Obama said he shared personal similarities to Reagan. While he does like to compare himself to Reagan, the contrast on energy policy couldn't be more stark. Pendley explains that Reagan adhered to the "human exceptionalism paradigm" -- which asserted that "human technological ingenuity can continually improve the human situation." Coming before Reagan, Carter embraced an "environmental paradigm" -- that placed environmental limits on growth. Carter's America is the one about which Obama stated: "… we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing." Yet, Obama has followed Carter's direction, not Reagan's and the results are Carter's, not Reagan's.
"In the two decades preceding his inauguration in 1981," writes Pendley, "so-called 'environmentalists' had erected some imposing obstacles to progress." As the governor of a western state, Reagan had seen the environmental movement change: "A fervent conservationist and an environmentalist himself, Ronald Reagan believed in being a good steward, but above all he believed in people, who are, after all, part of the environment. From the beginning, the conservation movement held humans at its center. … That focus changed, to Reagan's great dismay, during his lifetime. People were no longer at the center. … Not only was mankind on a par with the flora and fauna, it was the enemy of creation."
This shift pushed for adaptation of "scarcity and sacrifice"; a life of "pain and privation lay ahead." But, Reagan "would have none of this gloom and doom."
Reagan took office during the worst economy since the great depression. He cut taxes, regulations, and government. Obama has done the opposite.
Reagan called for dramatic changes in the Interior Department's programs. He believed in "American exceptionalism and in the ability of the American people -- if unfettered by burdensome regulations -- to improve their lot." Reagan made dramatic increases in oil and gas leasing, and resumed leasing of federal coal lands in the West. Pendley states: "The amazing work of the energy industry in discovering, developing, and delivering previously inaccessible oil and gas resources through hydraulic fracturing technology, for example, would not have surprised President Reagan."
Like Carter, Obama adheres to a scarcity model of energy and locks up federal lands. In October 1978, Reagan questioned Carter's policy: "Why is the government so anxious to lock up this [federal] land? Is it a fear that more [natural gas] strikes will be made?" Today, the oil and gas industry is busy finding more and more available resource -- there is no scarcity -- on private lands where it works around the limitations to access on federal lands. As Reagan observed, there must be fear that more gas strikes will be made. It is clear, there is no energy shortage, just an access shortage.
Obama doesn't believe in the technology, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans, Pendley told me. He believes in big government and its regulations. Pendley points out how he's given the environmentalists a seat at the table where Reagan denied them the moral high ground. When the environmentalists -- who for the previous two decades had been cloaked with an aura of inevitability, invincibility, and infallibility -- said they "spoke for the planet and the needs of all living things not human," Reagan responded: he "spoke for the dream of the American people and for the unborn generations to be free and prosperous."
Reagan had to "revive an American economy reeling from double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation, and double-digit interest rates. He knew the economy could not grow without reliable sources of energy. It was clear to Reagan that the economy, energy and foreign policy were inextricably linked."
His statement: "We win and they lose" was made in reference to his Cold War strategy. He had a boundless faith in American ingenuity, creativity, and know-how. He had confidence in the free enterprise system and believed the United States would "transcend" the Soviet Union. We did.
Today, we face an economic war and Reagan's "We win and they lose" strategy is still relevant. The economy, energy, and foreign policy are still "inextricably linked." The difference is that today, the "they" isn't the Soviets; it's the environmentalists. The problem is not from outside, it is from within. If they win, we all lose.
The author of Energy Freedom, Marita Noon serves as the executive director for Energy Makes America Great Inc. and the companion educational organization, the Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE).