As he grappled with international and economic problems, Carter attempted to build support for an energy program. Energy was, in fact, one of his biggest concerns. In April 1977 he introduced his solutions, employing dramatic terms in doing so. His proposals emphasized conservation and envisioned a smooth transition to an era of scarce and high-priced oil; they relied heavily on the taxing power to encourage people to shift from large automobiles to small ones, to cut back on the miles they drove, to insulate their homes and workplaces, and to shift from natural gas and oil to coal, nuclear power, and solar energy. Warning of a bleak future, praising conservation, appealing to patriotism, and criticizing the "special interests," the president, others in the administration, and the Democratic National Committee waged a massive campaign to build support.
At first, although he had not developed his proposals in cooperation with congressional leaders, Carter seemed likely to succeed. Congress endorsed his proposal for creation of the Department of Energy and his selection of James Schlesinger to head it, and the House—with Speaker Thomas P. ("Tip") O'Neill of Massachusetts cooperating with the administration and providing effective leadership—quickly passed energy legislation that conformed with the administration's proposals.
In the Senate, however, the energy package ran into powerful opposition. A temporary surplus of oil, dislike for the tax features, and demands for deregulation of newly discovered natural gas contributed to the resistance. Republicans and southern Democrats, with Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, head of the Senate Finance Committee, playing an especially large role, combined to revise the package, incorporating the ideas of producers, who assured the people that freeing the industry would lead to solutions. Liberal Democrats and administration representatives battled against them. But lacking support from consumer groups and environmentalists, they lost on key issues, encouraging Carter to denounce the giant oil companies in October. When Senate and House conferees engaged in lengthy negotiations to iron out their differences, the administration embarked on a new, large-scale campaign on behalf of its proposals, with Carter postponing a foreign trip so as to concentrate on building support. But dominated by other concerns, the public was not moved by the campaign, and the administration felt compelled to make concessions.
In spite of Carter's avowed populism, his proposals did not have enough support from the people to overcome opposition from the interests. In fact, most people opposed his energy package. By emphasizing conservation rather than the development of new resources, the program seemed to call upon Americans to change their lifestyle, and most did not want to do that. Furthermore, most people did not believe the energy problem was as serious as the president suggested. With confidence in Carter declining, his ability to shape public opinion on this issue suffered, and he could not rally public support with his attacks on the big oil companies. In addition, the program's heavy reliance on taxes ran head-on into a growing revolt against taxes. Thus, the people did not rise up and help Carter by putting pressure on Congress. Consequently the legislation that finally passed in October 1978, although not unimportant, fell far short of his desires.
As the president struggled with the politics of energy, a coal strike erupted. Lasting 110 days in the winter of 1977–1978, it added to Carter's difficulties. Coal had taken on renewed importance because of the nation's energy problems, and it figured prominently in Carter's solutions. As the strike continued, he resisted pressure to invoke an injunction, hoping that the normal negotiating process would produce a satisfactory outcome. Yet he and others in the administration applied whatever pressure seemed appropriate to them. The miners rebuffed the president, turning down a contract the administration endorsed, thereby persuading Carter to resort to the injunction, a move that further angered organized labor and did not return many miners to work. Before it ended, the strike had forced many industries and schools to curtail their operations or close down completely. The episode increased awareness of the importance of coal and added to criticism of Carter as a weak president.
The energy situation worsened in 1979. A revolution in Iran reduced oil supplies, and the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised oil prices sharply. At the same time, an alarming accident at a nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, enlarged doubts about nuclear energy. After holding a "domestic summit conference" at Camp David, Carter gave a major speech on energy, calling for effective action to reduce dependence on foreign supplies. Following another legislative battle, in which some Democratic legislators opposed the president, he achieved some success in 1980. Although Congress had not given him all he requested, what he had achieved in 1978 and 1980 encouraged him to point with pride to lower consumption of oil, lower imports, and more coal production.