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A Paradigm of ‘Crisis’ Decision Making: The Case of Synfuels Policy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2009


In explaining the making and unravelling of the synfuels policy in the United States, a new approach—the ambivalent-majoritarian paradigm—is presented in this article. This paradigm fills a significant conceptual gap for the study of domestic policy formulated under crisis conditions.

It is argued that the self-imposed necessity to respond to a crisis condition involving a policy decision is likely to force legislators to adopt a policy option that they would not adopt under normal conditions. The crisis response is likely to be passed by a ‘majoritarian’ crisis coalition which would also include a significant number of ‘ambivalents’, i.e., those legislators who have serious misgivings about the correctness or feasibility of the policy. In order for such a policy response to survive, it must withstand the scrutiny of ‘normal’ conditions involving that policy.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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1 Synthetic fuel or synfuel is defined as ‘a fuel which must be synthesized, manufactured, or artificially formulated. A synthetic material is a substance that does not exist in nature, or is a manufactured or artificially formulated substitute for a material that does occur naturally but in such limited quantities that its recovery becomes costly. In popular usage, the term synthetic fuels signifies fuels derived from other forms of fossil fuels which are less convenient or environmentally less acceptable for direct use than gaseous or liquid fuels’ (McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Energy, 2nd edn (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), p. 680)Google Scholar. In this article, three important bills concerning the industrial-scale production of synthetic fuels in the United States will be examined. The first two of these bills. HR 3474 and HR 12112, were defeated by the House of Representatives in 1975 and 1976. The third bill, HR 3930, which was replaced by S 932, was passed by Congress in 1980. The passage of this bill committed the United States to the commercial-scale production of synthetic fuels.

2 For a detailed discussion of incrementalism see Lindblom, Charles, ‘Policy Analysis’, American Economic Review, XLVIII, Part 1 (1958), 298312Google Scholar; and Braybrooke, David and Lindblom, Charles, A Strategy of Decision: Policy As A Social Process (New York: Free Press, 1963)Google Scholar. For a discussion of the rational comprehensive paradigm see Lindblom, , ‘The Science of Muddling Through’, Public Administration Review, XIX (1959), 7988CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For a systematic analysis of the divisibility paradigm see Dahl, Robert and Lindblom, Charles, Politics, Economics and Welfare (New York: Harper, 1953)Google Scholar. The non-incrementalism approach is well treated by Schulman, Paul, ‘Non-Incremental Policy-Making: Notes Toward An Alternate Paradigm’, American Political Science Review, LXIX (1975), 1354–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For ‘Speculative Augmentation’ see Jones, Charles O., ‘Speculative Augmentation in Federal Air Pollution Policy-Making’, Journal of Politics, XXXVI (1974), 434–64Google Scholar. For ‘mixed-scanning’ see Etzioni, Amitai, ‘Mixed-Scanning: A “Third” Approach to Decision-making’, Public Administration Review, XXVII (1967), 385–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Lindblom, , ‘The Science of Muddling Through’, p. 80.Google Scholar

4 Lindblom, , ‘The Science of Muddling Through’, p. 81.Google Scholar

5 For a detailed discussion of various criticisms of the rationality approach see Dye, Thomas, Understanding Public Policy, 4th edn (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1981), pp. 31–5Google Scholar. For an analysis of arationality see Elder, Charles and Cobb, Roger, The Political Uses of Symbols (New York: Longman, 1983), p. 1.Google Scholar

6 Dye, , Understanding Public Policy, pp. 30–4.Google Scholar

7 Lindblom, , ‘Policy Analysis’, p. 301.Google Scholar

8 Braybrook, and Lindblom, , A Strategy of Decision, pp. 78–9.Google Scholar

9 Jones, Charles O., An Introduction to the Study of Public Policy, 2nd edn (N. Scituate, Mass.: Duxbury Press, 1977), pp. 218–19.Google Scholar

10 Eyestone, Robert, From Social Issues to Public Policy (New York: Wiley, 1978), pp. 154–5.Google Scholar

11 Eyestone, , From Social Issues to Public Policy, p. 155, original emphasis.Google Scholar

12 Eyestone, , From Social Issues to Public Policy, p. 155.Google Scholar

13 Eyestone, , From Social Issues to Public Policy, p. 154.Google Scholar

14 For a detailed listing of the potential impact of regulatory requirements see US Department of Energy, Synthetic Fuels anil Environment: An Environmental and Regulatory Impact Analysis, 06 1980.Google Scholar

15 Synfuels From Coal and the National Synfuels Production Program: Technical, Environmental, and Economic Aspects, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, US Senate, Publication # 97–3 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. 1981), p. 52Google Scholar. Also Synthetic Fuels and Environment, p. 13.Google Scholar

16 See also: Helping Insure Our Energy Future: A Program for Developing Synthetic Fuels Plants Now (A Statement by the Research and Policy Committee of the Committee for Economic Development, 1979).

17 US Department of Energy, Synthetic Fuels and the Environment: An Environmental and Regulatory Impact Analysis, Review Draft, 7 01 1980, p. M-2.Google Scholar

18 Synfuels from Coal, p. 225.Google Scholar

19 The Nation's Water Resources 1975–2000, Second National Water Assessment by the US Water Resources Council (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, December 1978), p. 56.Google Scholar

20 Synfuels Environmental Research and Development, Hearing, Subcommittee on Energy Development and Application; Subcommittee on Natural Resources, Agriculture, Research and Environment; Committee on Science and Technology; US House of Representatives, 97th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1982), p. 205.Google Scholar

21 Overview of Synthetic Fuels Potential to 1990, prepared for Synthetic Fuels Task Force of the Senate Budget Committee, p. 179.Google Scholar

22 Costs of Synthetic Fuels in Relation to Oil Prices, Report by Science Policy Research Division, Congressional Service, 97th Congress, 1st Session (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1981), p. III and p. 1.Google Scholar

23 Congressional Quarterly Weekly Reports (CQWR), 9 06 1979.Google Scholar

24 During floor debates on HR 3930 and S 932 the legislators freely used phrases that revealed their perception of the crisis. A count of various phrases in the first twenty-four pages of the House debate on HR 3930 reveals 127 references to American dependence on foreign oil; twenty-eight references to actions demanded by people; fifty-one references to the energy crisis that then prevailed; eighty-four references to constraints on American foreign policy manœuvrability due to oil dependence; and eighty-four references to risks to national security and economic stability.

25 For instance, consider the following contradictory items: amidst growing reports of energy shortages in the United States, the New York Times on 17 04 1973Google Scholar reported: ‘There is no physical shortage of energy resources in either the United States or the world for the foreseeable future and yet Americans may spend the rest of this decade coping with brownouts and blackouts and perhaps even rationing of gasoline, heating oil, and natural gas.’ The same day Professor Murray Adelman, a well-known petroleum expert, was quoted as saying, ‘The world energy crisis or energy shortage is a fiction … But belief in this fiction is a fact. It makes people accept higher oil prices as imposed by nature, when they are really fixed by collusion.’ On 4 January 1974, and during the peak of the oil embargo, the New York Times editorially asserted that the Nixon Administration's response to oil shortage and embargo showed alack of understanding of the mystery-shrouded market it was trying to control. Citing fluctuating shortage estimates, the editorial noted that full tankers were waiting off-shore for space to unload and that storage facilities were filled to capacity while gasoline and heating-oil shortage pinched consumers. The editorial also cited a federal report that stated that 700,000 barrels of Arab oil had landed in the United States in December despite the embargo. In closing, the newspaper observed that experts could not agree on the meaning of these factors. In March 1975, the Nobel prize economist Samuelson, Paul wrote in NewsweekGoogle Scholar, ‘Bluntly, there is no need for us to do anything to mitigate the long-run energy problem in this recession year of 1975. Most of what could be done now would endanger the solutions of both our recession problem and our inflation problem. Why rock the boat?’ The New York Times, on 18 04 1977Google Scholar, quoted Ralph Nader, the nationally-known consumer advocate, as saying, ‘There is not an energy supply crisis [but rather] an energy monopoly crisis.’ For other details see Ahrari, M. E., ‘Synfuels Policy: A Study in Crisis Decision-Making’ (unpublished monograph, Mississippi State University, pp. 45–6).Google Scholar

26 Farhar, Barbara, Weis, Patricia, Unseld, Charles and Burns, Barbara, Public Opinion About Energy: A Literature Review, prepared for the US Department of Energy, 06 1979, pp. 62–6, passim.Google Scholar

27 Gallup, George, ‘Many Americans are Unaware of Nation's Most Basic Energy Need’, The Gallup Opinion Index, 06 1977, pp. 1719.Google Scholar

28 Public Opinion About Energy, pp. 37.Google Scholar

29 The following is based on Ahrari, Mohammed E., OPEC: The Failing Giant (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1986).Google Scholar

30 Cline, William R., ed., Policy Alternatives for a New International Economic Order (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1979).Google Scholar

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