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 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.
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.
Energy Crises of the 1970s
In the 1970s, Ohioans, like other Americans, experienced inconvenience and financial hardships, due to severe fuel shortages and inflated prices caused by the rising cost of crude oil.
During the 1970s, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) artificially increased the price of crude oil to thirty dollars per barrel by reducing production and putting in place embargos on oil to various countries. This price was three times the cost of a barrel of oil cost just a few years before. Because OPEC members reduced production, oil and gasoline shortages resulted across the world. Also contributing to the shortages were various conflicts involving oil-producing countries, including the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and tensions between the United States and Iran in 1979. These shortages, coupled with the high prices, caused economic hardship for many Ohioans and Ohio businesses.
During the early 1970s, many Ohioans switched from driving trucks and vans to driving smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Unfortunately for many Ohio workers, the American automobile manufacturers, major employers in Ohio, suffered, as Americans purchased the smaller and more fuel-efficient cars from Japan.
By the early 1980s, OPEC nations increased oil production, ending the fuel shortages and higher costs for gasoline and oil. Unfortunately, for Ohioans, the energy crisis of the 1970s had already had a detrimental impact on the state's economy.
The Oil Shocks of the 1970s
In October 1973, the Arab state members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) declared that they would cut oil production, and limit exports to certain countries, to protest the United States’ support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War. American policymakers believed that this decision, which they called an “embargo,” would raise the market price of oil as supplies diminished and would lead to shortages of oil in the United States.
In response, President Richard Nixon instituted a rationing program intended to safeguard American oil supplies and ensure continued low prices. Nixon’s policy helped lead to shortages at gasoline stations. Americans lined up at pumps for limited supplies, and engaged in a national conversation about the threat of “foreign oil” and the nation’s reliance on petroleum. At the same time, the U.S. economy suffered simultaneous recession and inflation (termed stagflation), further weakening American confidence in the nation’s stability and prestige at home and abroad. The 1973-74 “energy crisis” is a key moment in U.S. political, cultural, and economic history, and a central chapter in the history of the global oil economy.
Press coverage of OPEC’s actions and of dwindling U.S. oil reserves prompted widespread political concern about U.S. reliance on imported oil. During the 1960s, the U.S. had strictly limited oil imports to the United States to protect U.S. oil producers. These import restrictions had the unintended effect of depleting domestic reserves even more quickly. At the same time, oil demand rose rapidly after World War II. Twentieth-century U.S. oil production peaked in 1970. In April 1973, the federal government loosened restrictions on oil imports, and they quickly grew from 2.2 million barrels per day in 1967 to 6 million barrels per day. When OPEC slashed its production in November 1973, government officials and the American public panicked about the power of foreign oil producers to impact life at home.
Anxiety about dependence on foreign oil dovetailed with growing environmental concerns about petroleum. In January 1969, a well blew out off the California coast near Santa Barbara, capturing headlines and television coverage. Smog from automobile emissions prompted new clean air regulation. Environmental activists, and some government officials, declared that energy conservation and new energy sources such as solar power could solve the energy crisis, simultaneously mitigating the threat of “foreign oil,” fossil fuels’ environmental consequences, and potential future oil shortages.
The Energy Crisis of the 1970s
Students read and annotate a briefing about the energy crisis of the 1970s and identify stakeholders in the U.S. energy system in 1975, both foreign and domestic. They research possible measures President Gerald R. Ford could take to alleviate the crisis and distill the information to key points.
English Language Arts, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History
As an entry ticket, have students write and turn in a brief description of a recent presidential decision. Invite volunteers to share their descriptions, and then discuss who the decisions affect and what the president might have to consider when making these decisions. Guide the conversation by asking: How do these decisions affect you? Who else might they affect? What do you think the president had to think about when he was making these decisions? Who do you think he might have turned to for information he needed to make these decisions? Explain to students that they will have a chance to take on the role of advisor to President Gerald R. Ford in drafting legislation to prevent another energy crisis such as the one the U.S. experienced in 1973. Their goal will be to become informed about different facets of the topic and advise President Ford about which measure he should push most strongly when Congress negotiates the final bill.
2. Have students read, annotate, and discuss the Energy Crisis Briefing.
Distribute a copy of the Energy Crisis Briefing handout and the Energy Crisis Briefing Discussion Prompts worksheet to each student. Have students read and annotate the briefing by highlighting key points, marking any unfamiliar vocabulary, asking any questions of the material, and briefly summarizing the content. Ask students to jot down their thoughts about the discussion prompts as they read. When students have finished reading, discuss the reading using the prompts from the worksheet. Allow time for students to ask questions they have about the reading.
3. Have students identify stakeholders in the U.S. energy system in 1975.
Place students into small groups and distribute the Stakeholder Table worksheet to each group. Have groups brainstorm some stakeholders who would be affected by any changes in U.S. energy policy in 1975. Encourage them to think about both domestic and foreign interests that would be affected. Then have groups share their ideas with the class and create a master list of stakeholders. This list might include middle-class Americans, impoverished Americans, Congress, OPEC countries, U.S. oil companies, and people living near U.S. oil supplies. Have students list the stakeholders from the master list in the first column of the Stakeholder Table worksheet. They will complete the remainder of the worksheet in Activity 3.
4. Have students investigate possible measures that could be included in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.
Have groups brainstorm on paper some possible measures that could be included in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. Invite groups to share some of their ideas. Then, distribute the Possible Measures Table worksheet to each group and explain that this table includes some of the measures that Ford and congress considered for inclusion in the act. Have students work with their groups to research each measure. Have each group work collectively to generate possible keywords for each measure. Then have them divide up the measures among group members to research. If necessary, model how to select reliable online sources. As students research, they should take notes, keeping track of the Internet sites they use.
5. Have students work as a group to distill the information they gathered into key points.
Have students share the research they gathered individually with their small group. Students should ask questions of each group member’s research to ensure that they fully understand each measure. If necessary, students can go back to their resources or conduct additional research to answer specific questions. Once all group members have shared their research, have students work as a group to identify key points for and against each measure and record them on the Possible Measures Table. Then have them rank the importance of each measure on a scale of 1 to 3. As a class, briefly discuss the activity and ask students for ideas about other information that would be useful in evaluating the measures. Collect students’ annotated Energy Crisis Briefing, Stakeholder Tables, and Possible Measures Tables for use in formative assessment and in future activities.
Review students&rsquo annotated copies of the Energy Crisis Briefing and Possible Measures Tables as a formative assessment. Check the annotated briefings for any common marked vocabulary or student questions and address those topics before moving on to the next activity. Use the Possible Measures Table to check for general understanding of each measure.
Extending the Learning
Have students return to the brief descriptions of a presidential decision that they wrote in Step 1. Ask them to brainstorm possible stakeholders in that decision and how the decision would affect each stakeholder.
Understanding Energy Crises of the 1970s and Avoiding Problems Today
If you were alive and living in the U.S. during the 1970s, you probably remember waiting in long lines to fill your car with fuel. Yet, gasoline wasn’t the only item in short supply during the “Me Decade”—natural gas was seemingly running out and electricity demand was growing so much that new power plants were going up all over the country.
“I would argue, and I think a lot of historians would agree with me, that the 1970s was the most important decade in U.S. energy history, and I say that because of the gasoline interruptions. We had three big crises in the Middle East that reduced our supplies of oil, and that got so bad that at one point, in some states, less than 50% of the stations had any gasoline to sell at all,” Jay Hakes, author of the book Energy Crises: Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Hard Choices in the 1970s, said as a guest on The POWER Podcast.
“It was also a time where electric demand was expanding at a very rapid rate. There was a lot of optimism that nuclear would fill most of that void,” Hakes said. However, as fate would have it, the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in 1979 pretty much put an end to the nuclear power construction heyday.
In addition to writing books, Hakes has served as the administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Administration during the Clinton administration and as director for Research and Policy for President Obama’s BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Commission. He was also the director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library for 13 years, and he has had access to some of President Carter’s personal diaries, giving him unique insight into the events that occurred during Carter’s presidency.
“Jimmy Carter worked for Admiral Rickover when they developed the first nuclear submarine,” Hakes pointed out. “So, he actually knew the technology of nuclear reactors—obviously better than any president and better than some of the people that worked at the Atomic Energy Commission.”
Carter had also spent time on recovery efforts after the world’s first nuclear accident, which was at the Chalk River site in Ontario, Canada, in 1952. Carter was part of a group that was sent into the containment vessel to clean it up. “So, he would be the best president you’d want to have if there was a nuclear accident.”
Hakes noted that reports being sent to the president during the first couple of days after the TMI accident were mostly positive. However, on the third day, Carter decided he needed someone with technical expertise at the site to provide him with better details, so he had a direct phone line set up with Harold Denton, who was onsite following the situation as the head of nuclear reactors for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (Figure 1).
1. President Jimmy Carter toured the control room at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979. Harold Denton (left) acted as Carter’s eyes and ears on the ground. Courtesy: Nuclear Regulatory Commission
“The short story is the coolant system, which keeps the core from melting, broke down, but the containment vessel—that four-feet thick concrete structure that is around the reactor—did its job, and so, very little contamination reached the public,” Hakes said.
Following the incident, Carter formed a commission to investigate and recommend reforms for the nuclear industry. “I think that commission did an excellent job,” said Hakes, noting that many improvements were made based on the lessons learned. “The industry and the government both did a good job of fixing those safety problems. So, you know, in that sense, it’s a good model for dealing with energy crises.”
Hakes explained some of the policies, not only of Carter’s administration, but also of Nixon’s, that exacerbated the energy crises of the 1970s, and he shared his insight on how President Biden’s agenda could affect the energy industry going forward. He noted that Biden has put a pause on leasing on federal lands, but said he doesn’t expect that to affect production, at least for several years.
“I wish Biden wasn’t under so much political pressure, because I think there is a middle ground,” Hakes said. “For the economy, I don’t think you want to stop leasing in places like New Mexico, and offshore Texas and Louisiana, where there’s a lot of jobs involved. And you’re not really helping the climate if you stop drilling there, because the drilling will happen, you know, in Saudi Arabia or wherever. So, I think if he comes to that conclusion—and I’m writing some pieces kind of urging that middle ground—I think we’ll be in good shape.”
To hear the full interview with Hakes, which also includes his views on the Texas blackouts, among other things, follow the links below to The POWER Podcast show pages on your favorite podcast platform or click on the SoundCloud player below to listen now:
—Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).
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A friend of mine has a different story about the oil embargo of the 70's He was driving a tanker in south Texas at the time and he told me that they would load crude oil from super tankers by Houston and haul it to salt mines in central Texas, and dump it in the mine and go back and get more oil. He did that for six months.
I have to do a presentation on this event and I have to answer the following questions:
When did this event take place and where?
Why is this event important?
How did this event shape American history?
Is there any lasting impact of this event that can still be felt today? anon330575 April 17, 2013
I personally feel that it was a significant even in history of the United States because it changed our economy and our budgeting on our supply and demand system. serenesurface December 15, 2012
Use of automobiles was definitely one of the hardest hit areas from the oil embargoes. I think Congress had even banned gas stations from selling gas on Sundays in addition to rationing.
Businesses were affected too. Government asked businesses to close shops earlier to save energy. Many industries had to switch to coal at this time and there was the cost of switching over. Homes also switched to electricity heating to save energy.
I think we can say that the energy crisis affected every aspect of American life. ddljohn December 15, 2012
Does anyone have information about what gas prices were like in the 70s? Of course, the prices need to account for inflation, otherwise I won't know how it compares to prices today. I was not born then but I'm sure some people out there remember.
Gas prices went up suddenly several years back and haven't really come down since then. The situation is not as bad as it was in the 70s, thankfully rationing is not required. But I wonder if we will see the same kinds of effects in the near future as we saw with the 70s crisis. bear78 December 14, 2012
Is there any link between the energy crisis of 1970s and the US Invasion of Iraq? Some say that the invasion had to do with oil. Georgesplane June 2, 2010
Parmnparsley, your comments are interesting. I never knew so many environmental agencies and laws were rooted in the 70's energy crisis. I did a little more reading on the Department of Energy's website and found out that it has its roots in the manhattan project and only became the modern Department of Energy in 1977. They run 20 labs across the country that research everything from renewable energy, and national security to nuclear technologies, and toxic waste disposal. parmnparsley June 2, 2010
The sourcing and securing of energy is only one aspect of the energy crisis of the 1970's. The Clean Air Act, The Department of Energy, OSHA, The EPA, and the National Environmental Policy Act were all directly and indirectly related to the energy crisis during the '70s. What people must understand is that these policies and regulations concerning energy need to be progressive to meet the ever evolving needs of a growing and changing population. The energy crisis of the '70s helped to shape the study of sustainability establishing a link between energy and other social, environmental, and security issues.
As we focus on the future and designing what’s next at Zpryme’s ETS17 event — whose theme, Design for Energy, explores how we can redesign the energy industry to meet the needs of next-generation communities — we also need to look back.
The energy industry has experienced critical events and crises throughout its history that redesigned the industry and — if we’re going to shape its future — we have to understand what shaped its past. The new Zpryme series, Powerless: Events that Redesigned Energy, will explore the impacts of historic energy events through research and storytelling.
The 1970s Energy Crisis: Chaos Yesterday versus Today
Our first segment in the Powerless series explores the turbulent 1970s, and the energy crises that shaped a generation — ushering in things like energy efficiency and alternative energy resources. The Energy Crisis often brings to mind acute oil shortages in 1973 and 1979, but there were other crises in 1970s energy — from the 1977 NYC Blackout that happened 39 years ago today to Three-Mile Island in 1979.
What did the world of energy feel like in the 1970s? How do those experiences compare with today? What are the lasting impacts? Since no one at Zpryme remembers the 1970s — I missed it by 10 days! — we surveyed energy professionals who lived through it, and more than 300 generous folks shared their stories.
Most respondents focused on how the oil shortages shaped their lives, and we’ll cover that angle first in the survey results we’re sharing today and tomorrow. In the next installment of the Powerless series, Zpryme’s Mark Ishac will focus in more on the electricity crises of the 1970s.
Today, we’ll explore the chaotic feelings of the Energy Crisis from largely an oil perspective and how those feelings compare with today. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the lasting impacts of the Energy Crisis on people’s lives and careers.
The End of Energy’s “Golden Age”
In America’s crescendo to its Bicentennial Americans had worried little about their energy sources — everything seemed inexpensive and plentiful. It’s not that they hadn’t had their issues. New York and New England had experienced a large-scale blackout in 1965. But it wasn’t until 1973 when a large, nationwide energy shortage struck, that America realized how precious of a commodity energy was and how strong its impacts were on the American economy.
After World War II America experienced an economic boom for decades. Part of the growth was due to low energy costs — all forms of energy, including oil, were cheap and abundant. Domestic oil production increased by nearly 50% between 1945 and 1960, and annual oil imports rose from 74 million to 371 million barrels. Energy production was at an all-time high and while energy consumption was not highly efficient, it was of little concern.
America’s golden age of energy abruptly ended in 1973 with the OPEC embargo. When the embargo took affect the United States quickly began to feel economic crisis, realizing that America’s economy and energy consumption were closely tied. America’s relationship with energy would never be the same again.
Experiences During the Crisis
What did people experience during the Crisis? The images that remind me the most about the Energy Crisis are the photos of gas lines — funky 70s gas guzzlers queued up for a rationed commodity — but how much of that was real versus just an instance or two captured on film? We turned to our respondents for their insights.
Most people who experienced the Energy Crisis remember lines for gasoline — 75% of survey respondents personally experienced lines for gasoline. Things seemed to be more urgent in urban areas — some waited hours, others waited 15 to 20 minutes. For many, the concern wasn’t even the lines, but running out of gas and gas stations not being open. People talked about keeping spare fuel tanks, planning their gas stops on family trips, and saving gas to prepare for the impending hospital trip of a mother-to-be. A few interesting stats from our survey:
- The longest wait as measured by time: “24 hours.”
- The longest wait as measured by distance: “A line 2 to 3 kilometers long (no kidding!)”
- The most dramatic wait: “During the days of gasoline lines in Dallas, my husband and I spotted a gas station with no line. We saw someone filling up his tanks, so we turned in. We quickly exited the scene because the man pulled out a shotgun and aimed it at us.”
Part of the panic was just that no one knew what was going to happen next — the American lifestyle of endless energy and freedom came to a halt. “In 1973, oil caught the world off guard,” noted one respondent. “NO ONE had any idea where it might go, so uncertainty was the big issue.”
Even with gas lines, shotguns, and Jimmy Carter donning his now-famous beige sweater in February 1977, many Americans at the time believed the Energy Crisis to be a myth. A CBS-New York Times poll in May 1979 asked the question: “President Carter has told us that we are running out of oil and natural gas. Do you think things are as bad as the president said?” Of those who responded, only 33% agreed while 57% said no. In another poll by NBC News and the Associated Press, 54% of the voters believed the Energy Crisis to be a hoax.
That was then, but when we asked people to look back on the time, the results are different. Nearly 76% of our survey respondents believe that the Energy Crisis was real — just 11% believe it was hoax and 13% are undecided.
The Chaos in the Industry – Yesterday and Today
Whether it was real or not, people certainly experienced panic and chaos during the Energy Crisis. And today, we at Zpryme feel that industry is going through another chaotic time of transition, or what we define as uncertainty about what the future of energy looks like. But how do the two time-periods compare in regards to chaos? As they considered these questions, survey respondents wrestled with the definition of chaos…does it mean increased volatility? Does it mean more complexity? More players in the marketplace?
As one person wisely noted in regard to our question about the relative chaos of the different time periods: “This is a difficult question to answer because it is a mixed bag of industry effects. Oil/gasoline went totally haywire with the 1973 oil embargo. Today, the disruption in the electric utility industry is huge, albeit unfolding slowly.”
Overall, our survey respondents are split on the question, but leaning slightly toward less chaotic. Approximately 55% of respondents feel the energy industry is less chaotic today than during the Energy Crisis, and 45% feel there isn’t a difference or that it is more chaotic today than during the Energy Crisis. Much of the difference in opinion seems to depend how folks defined chaos.
Proponents of Less Chaos today, had comments such as these:
- “I don’t see the ‘fear’ that was around then.”
- “Seems like there is still a lot of volatility in the energy industry, but the threat of NOT having energy is much less.”
- “Hardly anyone knew what to do in the 1970s today is relatively calm and orderly.”
Those who side on the More Chaos perspective of today had this to say:
- “The key is how one defines chaotic. I interpreted this as meaning diverse, and there are many more options and more players. It is much less straight forward.”
- “Back then, it was simply a matter of constrained supply of one commodity: oil. Today, the entire industry — from power to gas to new technologies — is undergoing tremendous change.”
- “The Energy Crisis created chaos in the industry and was the start of the green movement towards energy efficiency and renewables. It’s different today, but still chaotic. Now we have distributed energy resources and the continuing move away from central station power plants to many, many distributed resources — resources that are mostly on the distribution side, rather than on the transmission side.”
- “I believe that the changes in the power system over the next 50 years will dwarf the changes in the last 50 years.”
How did the Energy Crisis Redesign Energy Today?
So it is kind of a toss-up between the chaos experienced during each time period. Today we’re seeing the complexity bring more uncertainty about the direction of the energy industry, but the 1970s Energy Crisis seemed to bring about more sheer panic.
What about the long-term impacts of the Energy Crisis beyond the panic? As one respondent noted, “The Energy Crisis was a temporary problem, and then everyone went back to business as usual.”
How did the Energy Crisis design today’s energy industry? How did it influence the careers and environmental perspectives of today’s energy professionals? Stay tuned. That’s what we’ll explore tomorrow and I found the results very interesting, but I’m not sure quite how to interpret them. I’ll need your help.
A special thanks to ace-researcher, Danny Starr, for his study of the perspectives during the Energy Crisis.
A Brief History of the Department of Energy
The Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977 created one of the most interesting and diverse agencies in the Federal government. Activated on October 1, 1977, the twelfth cabinet-level department brought together for the first time within one agency two programmatic traditions that had long coexisted within the Federal establishment: 1) defense responsibilities that included the design, construction, and testing of nuclear weapons dating from the Manhattan Project effort to build the atomic bomb and 2) a loosely knit amalgamation of energy-related programs scattered throughout the Federal government.
DOE’s Two Programmatic Traditions
In August 1939, on the eve of World War II, Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, informing him that recent research showed that a nuclear chain reaction might make possible the construction of “extremely powerful bombs.” In response, Roosevelt initiated a Federal research program, and, in 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers established the Manhattan Engineer District to design and produce the first atomic bomb.
The Manhattan Project that followed is the story of some of the most renowned scientists of the century combining with industry, the military, and tens of thousands of ordinary Americans working at sites across the country to translate original scientific discoveries into an entirely new kind of weapon. When the existence of this nationwide, secret project was revealed to the American people following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most were astounded to learn that such a far-flung, government-run, top-secret operation existed, with physical properties, payroll, and a labor force comparable to the automotive industry. At its peak, the project employed 130,000 workers and, by the end of the war, had spent $2.2 billion.
Following the war, Congress engaged in a contentious debate over civilian versus military control of the atom. Ultimately, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 created the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which took over the Manhattan Project’s sprawling scientific and industrial complex.
During the early Cold War years, the AEC focused on designing and producing nuclear weapons and developing nuclear reactors for naval propulsion. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 ended exclusive government use of the atom and began the growth of the commercial nuclear power industry, giving the AEC authority to regulate the new industry.
In the 1950s, the AEC embarked on a series of projects designed to develop peaceful uses of atomic energy. From this effort emerged the International Atomic Energy Agency and other bilateral and multilateral agreements but also the nascent domestic nuclear power industry that the Eisenhower Administration hoped would be closely tied to the growth of nuclear power in Europe and other areas. Other peaceful uses programs included the distribution of radioisotopes from the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge. These radioisotopes were used in the field of physics and chemistry, for industrial and agricultural applications, and in the biomedical field, radioisotopes were used in cancer therapy and as radioactive tracers for studying biological processes. Additionally, in 1954, in another show of nuclear power for peaceful purposes, the AEC initiated construction of the world’s first full-scale nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania. And by the mid-1960s, 75 nuclear power plants were on order.
Until the 1970s, the Federal government played a limited role in formulating national energy policy in an era of relatively cheap and abundant energy. The nation relied on the private sector to fulfill most of its energy needs. Historically, Americans expected private industry to establish production, distribution, marketing, and pricing policies. When free market conditions were absent, Federal regulations were established to control energy pricing.
No overall energy policy existed. Government officials generally thought in terms of particular fuels, technologies, and resources rather than “energy.”
The Energy Crisis and the Department of Energy
Two major developments fundamentally changed the role of the federal government in the energy field in the 1970s. First, the energy crisis of the 1970s hastened a series of government reorganizations as both the executive and legislative branches sought to better coordinate Federal energy policy and programs. Second, while the AEC’s activities in developing and commercializing nuclear energy had represented the Federal government’s largest and most significant energy project for decades to that point, questions about the need to separate nuclear licensing and regulation functions from the development and production of nuclear power and weapons hastened the abolition of the Atomic Energy Commission, and the establishment of the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in its place in 1974.
In 1977, the establishment of the Department of Energy brought most Federal energy activities under one umbrella and provided the framework for a comprehensive and balanced national energy plan. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission maintained its regulatory duties in areas like reactor safety and radiation protection, the Department of Energy undertook responsibility for long-term, high-risk research and development of energy technology, Federal power marketing, energy conservation, the nuclear weapons program, energy regulatory programs, and a central energy data collection and analysis program.
Security and Prosperity through World-Class Science
Over the course of its history, the Department of Energy has shifted its emphasis and focus as the needs of the nation have changed. During the late 1970s, the Department emphasized energy development and regulation. In the 1980s, nuclear weapons research, development, and production took a priority. With the end of the Cold war, the Department focused on environmental clean-up of the nuclear weapons complex and nonproliferation and stewardship of the nuclear stockpile.
In the 2000s, the Department’s priority has been ensuring the nation’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through science and technology solutions. The Department has sought to transform the nation’s energy system and secure leadership in clean energy technologies, pursue world-class science and engineering as a cornerstone of economic prosperity, and enhance nuclear security through defense, nonproliferation, and environmental efforts.
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Historically Speaking: Energy crisis in the 1970s
In the fall of 1972, we settled in to watch a new TV series, "The Waltons," about a proud family with far too many kids trying to make do on their family mountain in their cavernous house that had no mortgage during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The series lasted nine seasons.
Why would 1970s audiences be drawn to a series about hard times? Perhaps it was because it seemed like everything was falling apart in the 1970s. The war in Vietnam had fractured society. President Richard Nixon&rsquos 1972 re-election campaign, which had given him the greatest landslide victory in U.S. history, was gradually being soiled as the dirty tricks of the Watergate conspiracy were uncovered. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in disgrace. Food prices shot up &ndash especially meat in 1972 (my family with far too many kids was introduced to chipped beef casserole during the 1970s. It has not been remembered fondly). Inflation was on the rise. Added to all of this, was a series of fuel shortages in 1973 and 1979.
Economists today call it the "Oil Shock" of 1973-74. At the time it happened, the news called it the "Oil Crisis." The word "crisis" was used for nearly all the problems of the 1970s. We could handle a crisis. The first hints that there would be a fuel problem began in October 1973 when OPEC (the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries), in retaliation for United States aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War, increased the price of crude oil exports and then began an embargo. Gasoline and fuel oil prices skyrocketed. Although to modern eyes, 50-cents per gallon of gas might not seem so bad, it was a hardship at the time &ndash especially since cars back then had terrible gas mileage.
"While the politicians are off playing their political games worldwide with men and equipment, supported by helpless taxpayers&rsquo dollars, back home the motherland&rsquos economy is going to pieces," snarled the editor of the Exeter News-Letter. As supplies of gas decreased, panic took over. Worried that they might not be able to get to work, drivers flocked to gas stations. The News-Letter began a program called "Share-a-Ride" offering to serve as a clearinghouse for people needing to set up carpools. Each week, beginning in November 1973, the paper ran listings of people looking for regular ride-sharing opportunities.
"Humans are walking and bicycling more than they have for years," read an editorial titled "Gasoline Shortage Not Altogether Gloomy" in late November. "This, of course, is excellent physical therapy &ndash and what is good for the physical body often improves one&rsquos spiritual and mental attitudes. The rationing of motor fuel can&rsquot help but have an impact on the automobile industry and should spur the sales of high mileage compacts versus the fuel-hungry luxury cars." Perhaps, it implies, this would spur construction of improved mass transportation systems. "The ugly and scary side of the crisis is the very fact that this once great and self-sufficient nation let itself get into a situation where oil blackmail by foreign powers can slow our industrial pace and even jeopardize the effectiveness of our military establishment. Perhaps if the environmentalists will ease up awhile on the pollution requirements we can all buy gas masks, charge up the coal-burning furnaces and keep the kilowatts and thermal units climbing." (note from 2020 &ndash Yikes!)
Strict energy conservation became the rule of the day. Christmas 1973 was dark, as outdoor decorations were discouraged. Exeter had already strung the lights in November ready for the season. They were not lit that year. To save on fuel oil, the Christmas break for SAU 16 was extended by three days to save on heating. Daylight Saving Time began early in 1974, on Jan. 6. More daylight in the afternoon kept people from turning on the lights, but it also meant kids were catching school buses in the dark mornings. The opening times at the schools were delayed by a half-hour to give them more light (it is of some note that schools opened later in the 1970s than they do today. Exeter High School, before the energy crisis, began classes at 7:55 a.m. Today they start closer to 7:30). Thermostats were lowered to 66 degrees as people were reminded to pull on a sweater instead of turning up the heat.
Long lines at gas stations were problematic. The local gas dealers met twice to discuss the problem. There was talk of adopting the Oregon Plan &ndash a system of limiting purchasing gas on odd and even days based on the final numeral of one&rsquos license plate. Although it was discussed, it doesn&rsquot seem to have been activated in Exeter. At a joint meeting of the Exeter Gasoline Dealers and the Exeter Board of Selectmen, it was agreed to put out a public statement which asked consumers for, "your continued cooperation in buying only what you need and only when you need it. PLEASE DO NOT TOP OFF !! In the event that voluntary means fail and lines again start forming on highways, the Selectmen have agreed, that in the interest of public safety, the Police will be required to eliminate the safety hazards created by these lines." There was no explanation of how this would actually happen &ndash arrests, closures, fines? Just don&rsquot do it.
Shortages eased up in March when the embargo was lifted, although high prices remained. There was another crisis in the summer of 1979 caused by reaction to the Iranian Revolution. Rationing was again discussed but was never implemented. Worldwide supplies were not as interrupted as many had predicted and most of the difficulties in 1979 were caused by panic. Lots of families decided against taking a road trip vacation that summer. Still, it did encourage automakers to consider fuel efficiency when engineering cars.
So, what of all this 1970s nostalgia? We don&rsquot want to put too much of a Pollyanna spin on those times &ndash people were afraid. They were afraid their livelihoods would suffer, afraid they wouldn&rsquot be able to heat their homes, afraid they would be in the dark. Those were scary, survivalist worries. But I&rsquod say we&rsquore in a bigger crisis right now &ndash hunkered down in our homes, afraid that the handshake we took two weeks ago might be fatal to grandma, afraid that there won&rsquot be enough nurses to take care of us, afraid that things will be altogether different when we come out of this. As scary as it is, it&rsquos been quite calming to spend the last few days blanketed in 1970s research. Yogurt came in 8-ounce cartons back then. Eight full ounces. Different times, I would say. Stay in contact with one another. Put on some music and dance. We will come out of this.