By the early 1970s, American oil consumption—in the form of gasoline and other products—was rising even as domestic oil production was declining, leading to an increasing dependence on oil imported from abroad. Despite this, Americans worried little about a dwindling supply or a spike in prices, and were encouraged in this attitude by policymakers in Washington, who believed that Arab oil exporters couldn’t afford to lose the revenue from the U.S. market. These assumptions were demolished in 1973, when an oil embargo imposed by members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) led to fuel shortages and sky-high prices throughout much of the decade.
Background to the 1970s Energy Crisis
In 1948, the Allied powers had carved land out of the British-controlled territory of Palestine in order to create the state of Israel, which would serve as a homeland for disenfranchised Jews from around the world. Much of the Arab population in the region refused to acknowledge the Israeli state, however, and over the next decades sporadic attacks periodically erupted into full-scale conflict. One of these Arab-Israeli wars, the Yom Kippur War, began in early October 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. After the Soviet Union began sending arms to Egypt and Syria, U.S. President Richard Nixon began an effort to resupply Israel.
In response, members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) reduced their petroleum production and proclaimed an embargo on oil shipments to the United States and the Netherlands, the main supporters of Israel. Though the Yom Kippur War ended in late October, the embargo and limitations on oil production continued, sparking an international energy crisis. As it turned out, Washington’s earlier assumption that an oil boycott for political reasons would hurt the Persian Gulf financially turned out to be wrong, as the increased price per barrel of oil more than made up for the reduced production.
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Energy Crisis: Effects in the United States and Abroad
In the three frenzied months after the embargo was announced, the price of oil shot from $3 per barrel to $12. After decades of abundant supply and growing consumption, Americans now faced price hikes and fuel shortages, causing lines to form at gasoline stations around the country. Local, state and national leaders called for measures to conserve energy, asking gas stations to close on Sundays and homeowners to refrain from putting up holiday lights on their houses. In addition to causing major problems in the lives of consumers, the energy crisis was a huge blow to the American automotive industry, which had for decades turned out bigger and bigger cars and would now be outpaced by Japanese manufacturers producing smaller and more fuel-efficient models.
Though the embargo was not enforced uniformly in Europe, the price hikes led to an energy crisis of even greater proportions than in the United States. Countries such as Great Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Norway and Denmark placed limitations on driving, boating and flying, while the British prime minister urged his countrymen only to heat one room in their homes during the winter.
Energy Crisis: Lasting Impact
The oil embargo was lifted in March 1974, but oil prices remained high, and the effects of the energy crisis lingered throughout the decade. In addition to price controls and gasoline rationing, a national speed limit was imposed and daylight saving time was adopted year-round for the period of 1974-75. Environmentalism reached new heights during the crisis, and became a motivating force behind policymaking in Washington. Various acts of legislation during the 1970s sought to redefine America’s relationship to fossil fuels and other sources of energy, from the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act (passed by Congress in November 1973, at the height of the oil panic) to the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 and the creation of the Department of Energy in 1977.
As part of the movement toward energy reform, efforts were made to stimulate domestic oil production as well as to reduce American dependence on fossil fuels and find alternative sources of power, including renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power, as well as nuclear power. However, after oil prices collapsed in the mid-1980s and prices dropped to more moderate levels, domestic oil production fell once more, while progress toward energy efficiency slowed and foreign imports increased.
READ MORE: Climate Change History