Skip to content ↓

Seventies oil crisis was a 'perfect storm' for U.S.

Meg Jacobs of the MIT History section makes a point during a recent colloquium about the 1970s oil crisis.
Meg Jacobs of the MIT History section makes a point during a recent colloquium about the 1970s oil crisis.
Photo / Donna Coveney

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, many people believed that fully loaded tankers lingered just offshore, waiting for oil prices to go up.

It was an era in American history, said Meg Jacobs, Class of 1947 Career Development Associate Professor, when a number of political, global and social events came together to create a perfect storm.

Jacobs spoke at a Science, Technology and Society (STS) colloquium March 19. A political historian, Jacobs said she is writing a book on the energy crisis because it provides a good example of how chaos can erupt when there is a disconnect between what citizens expect and how government reacts.

For anyone who owned a car in 1973, it's hard to forget the long lines at pumps, the "sold out" and "no gas today" signs, the rationing and the gas station attendants who carried guns for self-protection.

What caused the crisis was the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries' (OAPEC, which was the Arab members of OPEC plus Egypt and Syria) embargo on shipping petroleum to nations that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War between Israel, Syria and Egypt.

About the same time, OAPEC members agreed to use their leverage over the world price-setting mechanism for oil to quadruple world oil prices, after attempts at negotiation with the major oil companies failed.

The problem was worsened, Jacobs said, because most people didn't believe the crisis was real. "They believed it was a conspiracy perpetrated by big oil to reap high profits, and they also blamed government," she said.

Americans were not prepared for an energy shortage. They drove cars like the 1959 Cadillac Coupe de Ville--a 5,000-pound "living room on wheels"--and took the presence of cheap and abundant energy for granted. The Department of Energy didn't exist yet because energy issues were not on most people's mental radar screens.

Democrats in Congress blamed big oil and demanded that government come to the rescue. The Nixon administration was reluctant to "overreact," as Office of Management and Budget Director Roy L. Ash put it in a White House memo, but, unknown to most Americans, the administration allowed imported oil to trickle in to boost supply.

The full-blown crisis--schools and offices shut down to save on heating oil, laid-off factory workers, a truckers' strike to protest a national maximum 55 mph speed limit--provides a "lesson from the past on the difficulty of winning support for solutions," Jacobs said.

The energy crisis did lead to some positive, although unintentional, results: a greater interest in renewable energy, a conservation movement and corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards that downsized existing automobile categories and made the Volkswagen Rabbit more popular than gas-guzzlers.

"What does the energy crisis teach us? That it's hard for meaningful change when few think there is a problem," Jacobs said. The challenge today, as much as it was then, is to "create a market and momentum for new ways of thinking about energy."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 4, 2007 (download PDF).

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News