The noisy salvo of support for President Carter's energy program from the environmental-consumer lobby, ambitiously planned just one month ago, has turned into a guarded, intentionally unpublicized popgun salute from a corporal's guard of old-line conservationists.
Energy czar James Schlesinger's office had planned an energy "love-in" on the White House lawn, where smiling Jimmy Carter would receive support from men and women who helped elect him: leaders of hundreds fo environmental groups representing over 35 million Americans, all backing the new energy program. Instead, leaders of 29 groups representing four million members signed a namby-pamby statement, damning the program with faint praise, and then only on condition the White House would not make much of it.
This gap between aspirations and reality is an object lesson in the futility of mobilizing the environmentalist lobby for any constructive program. The movement's internal dynamics made it impossible for environmentalists and consumer advocates to compromise. Although the President had alienated the world of business in drafting the program, by mid-May opposition to it had become a test of credibility in the world of "Public interest" lobbies.
The Schlesinger team, while hurt and angry over this rebuff, insists it did what was right in gearing the program toward conservation rather than production of energy. Indeed, Schlesinger has always favored the conservation approach. Neverthless, he has lost a high-stakes political gamble. Courting Ralph Nader at the cost of General Motors, he is left with the worst of two worlds.
Nader jumped ship two weeks before the President unveiled his program, asserting on April 8 that Carter's abandonment of fast breeder reactors was not enough and that all nuclear power must be sidetracked. Even so, the Schlesinger camp hoped that Nader's more moderate colleagues were not totally anti-growth. Plans for the White House lawn party - minus Nader, of course - continued.
At an April 29 press briefing, Schlesinger claimed the President's program was endorsed "in its entirely" by environmentalist organizations including "quite a broad spectrum of opinion" representing 35 million members. That statement, prematures at best, triggered adverse reaction in the movement.
A meeting of environmentalist and consumer leaders showed that opposition to the program was more vocal and virulent than its support. Nader and radical ecologist Barry Commoner, the two biggest names present, opposed Carter's modest goals for increased nuclear power and coal production. In effect, they wanted to place the movement on record against economic growth.
The May 9 edition of Village Voice fired a second volley. It stigmatized environmentalists supporting the program as "Carter's spaniels" and called such support "repugnant," "spineless" and "humiliating." Soon afterwards, Friends of The Earth abandoned the program, and hopes of broad-based environmentalist support ended.
The third volley was fired May 10 at an energy conference in Washington when Dr. Commoner assaulted the Carter plan: too much nuclear, not enough conservation. In the language of the zealot, he ruled out compromise and called for rejection: "Can these faults be corrected by piecemeal modification of the plan? I think not, for the plan's basic fault is generic."
Opposition stepped up May 17 when James Flug, a top consumer advocate in the energy field, told a House subcommittee that the new natural-gas price selling may not be the deregulation the oil industry wants but is nevertheless far too high. Paraphrasing the President's description of his energy program as "the moral equivalent of war," Flugg called its natural-gas pricing provisions "the moral equivalent of deregulation."
Days before Flug's testimony, all hope of real support from him and his colleagues had vanished. A May 13 statement cautiously backed Carter's goals though not his program. Old-line conservationists - the National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Izaak Walton League - signed, but only on the condition it would not be publicized.
Clearly, Carter can count on nothing from this corner. Noting the President recent statement that when liberals "get 95 per cent of what they want they can only remember the other 5 per cent," one White House political aide told us that "the figure ought to be 97 per cent for the Naderites."
Having failed to win environmentalist support for a program that fails to suffocate economic growth, will Schlesinger now court business support by strengthening the energy production side of this program? No chance. The administration is committed to a program that appeases but does not satisfy Nader and Co. Denied its coming-out party on the White House lawn, the President's energy program enters the lion's den of Congress under fierce attack from both flanks.