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1971: An Account of Nixon's Address to Congress During an Energy Crisis

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

This TNR archive piece is available online for the first time as part of a conversation about America's energy future, sponsored by Southern Company.  

A series of energy crises threaten the nation, some this summer, more in the next few years and still others in the decades ahead. Coal is plentiful but sulfurous, natural gas is clean but scarce, oil is near its domestic pumping limit and uranium is a suspect arrival on the energy scene. In any event fossil fuels are destined to power the U.S. energy economy for many years and the domestic resources of clean fuel immediately available are limited.

Against this background of impending crisis, President Nixon delivered the first energy message any Congress has ever received from the White House. According to the President’s program $3 billion in federal funds will be required over the next 10 years to develop clean energy sources. It should be noted that the federal government spent over $3 billion in the past 10 years on development of civilian power, most of it for nuclear-electric power.

The big budget item targeted in the Nixon message is the power-breeder, a nuclear reactor designed to produce economic electricity and at the same time more nuclear fuel (plutonium) than it burns. General Electric, Westinghouse and North American Rockwell are the three candidates vying to build this demonstration power-breeder. Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Atomic Energy Commission chairman, stated on June 4 that the new reactor would cost “between $400 million and $500 million.” President Nixon announced an increase of $50 million for the machine, equaling the amount already budgeted; this added to AEC fuel waivers and support adds up to $130 million in federal funds. The government hopes that the nuclear industry and utilities will put together a package that would make up the difference.

Even before the power-breeder “demo” is funded, it is under attack by environmentalists who fear that the facility will be far from clean. Prior to the President’s energy message, the Scientists’ Institute for Public Institute (SIPI) brought a lawsuit against the AEC to force it “to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact statement on the complete LMFBR program and also a detailed assessment of the alternative means of power generation.” LMFBR stands for liquid metal fast breeder reactor, a liquid sodium cooled power-breeder most favored by the AEC as the “demo” to be built. The White House fell short of this challenge by directing the AEC to prepare a 102 statement (Sec. 102 of the National Environment Policy Act) on the environmental impact of just the “demo.” Considering the fact that other types of power-breeders are under development, it would be useful to have such statements on all designs so that the decision on the power-breeder encompasses an overall assessment of the environmental capability of the new reactors.

The big item almost left out of the President’s message is oil. (See Mr. Dietsch’s report which follows.) Accounting for 43 percent of all U.S. energy and two-thirds of the energy dollar, oil dominates all other fuels. Furthermore, domestic production of crude oil, now 3.5 billion barrels per year, is nudging the limits of capacity and oil products must be imported to fill the nation’s 5.3 billion barrel current annual demand. Yet nothing is mentioned about oil import policy and one senses the crisis here by the President’s emphasis on tapping off-shore oil (hardly a pollution-free source) and on developing our domestic oil shales.

“About 80 billion barrels of this shale oil are particularly rich and well situated for early development,” reads the message, although acknowledging that “at present there is no commercial production of shale oil.” The oil shale program of the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Mines has bumped along at the maximum funding of $2.5 million annually with $11.2 million spent in the last six years. A ton of good oil shale found in the Green River Formation in Colorado and adjoining states yields three-fourths of a barrel of oil. To supply 1 billion gallons of oil will mean excavating and processing twice the amount of coal now mined each year. Thus it’s good that the message calls for an environmental (102) statement on shale oil. About 80 percent of oil shale is on federal land, and one hopes that the Secretary of the Interior will lease it so as to safeguard the taxpayer’s interests—both financial and environmental.

The nation’s most pressing energy need is to find additional natural gas. Here is a fossil fuel resource that is vanishing so fast that its use as an energy source will have to be curtailed in the next few years. The presidential message calls for intensification of the effort to gasify coal. The gasification of coal is technically feasible, although the development has limped along for years on a skimpy budget which only this year will top the $20 million mark for the Office of Coal Research. Our most abundant fossil fuel resource has in the past received little research and development attention—about a few percent of funds accorded nuclear power. I strongly suspect that nuclear funds for civilian power would not have been available either, had they not been virtually coat-tailed to the military atom. In any event coal gasification is now slated to advance to the demonstration stage with the government providing $20 million and industry kicking in half that amount. Nothing is said in the Energy Message about a 102 statement on coal gasification, although I estimate that it will take all of the U.S. coal mined in one year to produce about half of the natural gas consumed this year.

“Energy has been an attractive bargain in this country—” states the message “and demand has responded accordingly.” Indeed, the Federal Power Commission’s 1964 National Power Survey observed that the 1962 price of electric energy was 1.7 cents/kilowatt hour and it aimed at 1.2 cents/kw-hr by 1980. One wonders what the 1970 National Power Survey, now in preparation, will say about the requirement for low-cost energy. Obviously, it’s an economic and political impossibility to stop power growth, but should low cost energy be a primary national goal? This is only one element in a national energy policy and the Energy Message is not a statement of such a policy.

A true national energy policy would set time goals and fix the “energy mix,” i.e. the proportion of fuels to be consumed in the light of national needs, resource adequacy and environmental compatibility. President Nixon recommends consolidating energy resource development programs under a single energy authority within the new Department of Natural Resources, which has yet to be established. This would have certain virtues, but it would be more a budgetary and administrative arrangement than a real energy policy agency. Presumably there will be no national energy policy until Big Oil decides to make one.

Meanwhile, the nation’s electric energy production continues to soar and a seven-fold growth by the year 2000 has been set for the utilities. Then over half of the electric power will be nuclear and the trend is towards huge energy centers each generating 5 million kilowatts or more. The transportation hazard posed by making almost 10,000 “hot atom” shipments per year may make it necessary to process spent fuel at the power site. The Energy Message highlights the need for proper plant siting and location of transmission lines. It also urges that Americans use energy more wisely and recommends better insulation for houses and more efficient electrical appliances. But it does not recommend a ban on air conditions, for example, or any restraints on all-electric living promoted by the utilities. Nor is there any admonition to Detroit to cut back vehicular horsepower which consumes 90 billion gallons of gasoline per year!

Skilled political chef that he is, the President has prepared an energy menu that has something for everyone. His critics cannot complain that he has glossed over the quality of our environment: “clean” as a characteristic of fuel appears in almost every paragraph. Environmentalists have not been crying in the wilderness, but they will hardly welcome the President’s prime response: “Our best hope today for meeting the nation’s growing demand for economical clean energy lies with the fast breeder reactor.” He’s putting his chips on the AEC’s power-breeder as the energy source of the future.

In the showdown between nuclear and fossil fuels, opponents of the atom assert that reactors pose greater hazards than conventional power plants, and that we can make do with the fossil fuels. This is an argument of anticipation since fossil fuel fumes already pollute the environment and nuclear power is just coming on stream under tight restrictions just announced by the AEC.

The President’s comprehensive introduction to the energy resource-environment must now be followed by a White House report on energy fuel needs of the future, resource availability, conversion prospects for solid fossil fuels and a comparative assessment of nuclear vs. fossil fuel pollutants. Our high-energy society has in the space of 70 years burned up 37 billion tons of coal and over 80 billion barrels of oil. This massive conflagration has resulted in a growing environmental insult largely because of a lack of planning and control as America pursued the goal of low-cost power. This era is ending. That is the real meaning of the President’s energy message, although you have to read between the lines to discern it.