Don't Be Fuelish: A Discussion on the 1973 U.S. Oil Embargo

Continuing conflicts in the Middle East and recent damage to oil rigs and oil refineries in the Gulf region sustained during hurricanes Katrina and Rita have caused fuel prices in the U.S. to rise steeply in the last year and have also caused sporadic shortages. These events have triggered a renewed concern among many Americans about current and future access to energy resources. The disruption has also reminded Americans of the energy crisis in the 1970s and early 1980s. Although the impact of today's energy problems appears similar to the impact associated with the earlier crisis, many of the root causes of the current American energy shortage are different from those that caused the energy crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. This exhibit provides a closer look at the policies and politics of the energy crisis of the 1970s and 1980s.

In the early 1970s the Nixon administration released the dollar from the gold standard in an effort to offset economic recession in the United States. This move lowered the value of the dollar against currencies of other countries including many of the oil rich countries of the Middle East. OPEC (Organization of the

A gas station attendant holds a gas pump and greets a returning customer with a 'Glad to see'ya back!' while cars pull up to get gas in a continuous line. This cartoon refers to the gas shortage and the long gas lines during the 1970s energy crisis. From the Clifford Baldowski Editorial Cartoon Collection. Created for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and licensed to the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies by the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Dated 1979. A gas station attendant holds a gas pump and greets a returning customer with a "Glad to see'ya back!" while cars pull up to get gas in a continuous line. This cartoon referes to the gas shortage and the long gas lines during the 1970s energy crisis. From the Clifford Baldowski Editorial Cartoon Collection. Created for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and licensed to the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Petroleum Exporting Countries) objected vehemently to the devaluation of American dollars invested in oil, dwindling foreign aid and the U.S., Western Europe and Japan 's support of Israel. The Yom Kippur War (the fourth Arab-Israeli war) began in October of 1973 and further galvanized Arab opinion of Israel's western allies. On October 19, 1973 these issues resulted in OPEC imposing an embargo on its oil exports to the U.S. and its allies in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Under this embargo, OPEC restricted the amount of oil it produced for these nations. This scarcity caused prices to rise precipitously.
'Not over 50' bumper sticker was part of one of the many promotional campaigns launched by the government and private industries to encourage drivers to drive 50 miles-per-hour and reduce car trips. From the John William Davis Collection, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies.





In the U.S., the effects of the oil embargo were immediate. The low value of the U.S. dollar had a disastrous impact on the country's ability to purchase oil causing shortages and prices for gasoline and oil to soar. This spike in petroleum prices, coupled with an ongoing recession placed significant burdens on American consumers, but ultimately, the energy crisis moved Western nations to adopt energy policies and practices that placed greater emphasis on energy conservation. For example, in the United States the government passed laws to reduce the speed limit to fifty-five miles per hour (the optimal maximum speed for energy conservation in most automobiles), and Daylight Saving Time throughout the year. Advertising campaigns by a variety of interested parties, for example, politicians, railroads and insurance companies encouraged consumers to conserve energy and offered suggestions for reducing energy consumption costs by making small changes like turning out the lights when leaving a room. Interest among consumers in renewable energy sources like solar and wind power grew significantly. Energy providers also turned to coal and nuclear power as cheaper sources of energy despite concerns by some over safety of both types of fuel.



Quote by Williamson S. Stuckey, Jr. 'It has never been more imperative that the oil importing nations of the world join together to develop new and alternative sources of energy...I would like to see the day when we can turn to these countries and say 'We don't need your oil, thank you.'

Arab oil ministers, with the exception of Libya, lifted the embargo in March of 1974 but the long-term effects of the crisis, to some degree, persist today. Japan seized the opportunity of the embargo to manufacture smaller, more fuel-efficient automobiles. In the U.S. and Western Europe, consumers purchased these cars in record numbers establishing the Japanese car industry as a powerful and enduring force in global markets. Although the United States continued to support Israel, most Western European countries and Japan pursued a more pro-Arab foreign policy. The United States sought out other non-OPEC oil producing countries Canada and the Soviet Union for petroleum and pursued a greater dependence on alternative fuel sources. By the early 1980s, these changes led to a decline in demand for oil and forced OPEC to cut prices. As the great profits of the embargo declined, OPEC lost some of its strength and unity.

Today, demand for petroleum products has never been greater. Developing countries such as China and India have experienced tremendous economic growth in the last two decades and now require comparable amounts of energy to power this growth. Instability in the Middle East has increased since the turbulence in the 1970s and Western Europe and the U.S. face constant threats to their energy supplies from this troubled region. In the U.S., years of disinterest in fuel conservation and alternative renewable energy by the government, consumers, and manufacturers once the crisis of the 1970s subsided, has intensified this instability and competition for petroleum energy sources.