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U.S. Energy Picture Bright on OPEC Oil Embargo Anniversary

Pat Remick

Posted October 16, 2013

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This week marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the OPEC Oil Embargo and I remember well the frustrating and interminably long gas lines that followed. But as difficult as it was to believe then, that energy crisis helped shape national policies that allow us today to declare that America’s energy sector never has looked so good when it comes to reliability and national security.

But first a look back at that moment in history.

The past

Launched in retaliation for U.S. aid to Israel in the “Yom Kippur war” when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on our ally in October 1973, the embargo began when Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised the posted price of crude oil by almost 70% to over $5 a barrel and cut off exports to America at a time when domestic energy production had dwindled. By the time the crisis ended, the price of a barrel of oil had stabilized to around $12 a barrel.gaslines EPA photo from national records and archive administration.jpg

It was an excruciatingly long fall and winter in southeastern New Hampshire as I drove my clunker car from gas station to station in search of one with 1) fuel to sell and 2) lines that took less than two hours to inch toward a pump where there was always the risk that it might run dry before I reached it.

Complicating this grueling experience was the fact that some gas stations limited sales to 10 gallons (or less) per customer. And because my vehicle license tag ended with an even number, I could only embark upon these often-disappointing journeys on even-numbered days. These fuel restrictions made travel challenging at a time when there was little public transportation beyond your own two feet.

For a new college graduate beginning her first (extremely low-paying) journalism job, the corresponding rise in gas prices was especially distressing. To watch the price of a gallon of gas shoot up from about 30 cents a gallon to approximately $1.20 at the height of the crisis – four times what I was accustomed to paying – was a painful reminder of the limits of my personal budget. Imagine what it would be like to have today’s gas prices similarly quadruple almost overnight!

The oil embargo sparked an energy crisis that extended beyond my gas tank, though. Americans were urged to conserve energy by turning off lights to save electricity – almost 20% of which was generated from petroleum (it’s less than 1% today) – and a national 55 mph speed limit was imposed to help reduce gasoline consumption. Congress also passed, and President Ford signed into law, the first federal fuel economy standards in 1975.

Meanwhile, politicians proclaimed that OPEC never would put America “over a barrel” like that again. Our country has taken numerous additional steps to make sure it doesn’t, including storing petroleum and finding other ways to power our economy.  

The present

Fast forward four decades and I’ve had the privilege of working with colleagues Ralph Cavanagh and Sierra Martinez on NRDC’s First Annual Energy & Environment Report entitled “America’s (Amazingly) Good Energy News.” And what we’ve found is indeed excellent news – there’s been a remarkable turnaround since the oil crises of the 1970s.

In fact, based on key economic, security, and environmental indicators, the state of the U.S. energy economy never has been better – and mostly because we’ve been able to stretch our energy dollars thanks to energy efficiency, also known as getting the same amount of work or more out of our cheapest and cleanest energy resource.

And, in the spirit of these more modern times, here’s a fabulous infographic created by another colleague, Adiel Kaplan, that summarizes the energy good news story even better than I can: 

Thumbnail image for EE infographic.jpg

 Gas lines photo by the Environmental Protection Agency 

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