On October 20, 1973, Middle Eastern oil-producing countries all agreed to stop exporting petroleum products to the United States. The embargo had severe repercussions for the American lifestyle and economy, but it also produced a long-term environmental win: the beginning of conservation in our use of fossil fuels.
The early 1970s were a tough time in the U.S. The country was struggling with the Vietnam War, civil rights, equal rights for women and a host of other social issues. A series of decisions by the Nixon administration, including removing the dollar from the gold standard, set the economy reeling. Oil production in the massive Texas oil fields peaked in 1970, and oil imports soared, especially from Arab countries in the Middle East.
During the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt in the fall of 1973, Arab countries used their oil exports to put pressure on the U.S. to stop its support of Israel. First they raised prices, then they cut production. When President Nixon announced on October 19 that the U.S. would send more than $2 billion in aid to Israel, Arab nations responded in kind. First on that day and finally on October 20, most Arab oil-producing countries announced a total end to exports to the United States.
Although the Yom Kippur War ended just a few weeks later, the oil embargo continued until March 18, 1974. The impacts on American life were immediate and harsh. I remember the price of gas at the Shell station across the street from my graduate student apartment at the University of Missouri being about 30 cents per gallon one evening. The next day, the price was $1.30 per gallon. Securing gas for one’s car became the highest day-to-day priority. Gas stations often limited customers to ten gallons per day; people spent hours in line to wait for gas, often to find out that the station had run out.
Government responses were also immediate and harsh. The speed limit on highways was reduced to 55 miles per hour to save fuel. Cities set up rationing systems that allowed cars with even-numbered license plates to get gas on even dates, with odd-numbered license plates to get gas on odd dates. Daylight-savings time became year-round, making students go off to school in the dark during the winter. On November 7, 1973, President Nixon announced “Project Independence,” which promoted domestic production of fossil fuels.
At the suggestion of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, The International Energy Agency was created one year later. The IEA was begun to be the locus for energy matters among the nations of the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, basically the 29 most developed countries of the world.
But, from an environmental standpoint, the oil embargo was a great impetus for energy conservation. New president Jimmy Carter told the nation that the energy crisis was “a problem unprecedented in our history” and not one that would go away just because the embargo was over. His administration instituted mandatory fuel economy standards that for the first time made auto makers pay attention to the size and efficiency of vehicles. Federal research for alternative energy sources and energy conservation soared in the 1970s, increasing sevenfold over the decade.
Department of State. Oil Embargo, 1973-1974. Office of the Historian, Department of State. Available at: https://history.state.gov/milestones/1969-1976/oil-embargo. Accessed October 19, 2017.
International Energy Agency. History. Available at: https://www.iea.org/about/history/. Accessed October 19, 2017.
Myre, Greg. 2013. The 1973 Arab Oil Embargo: The Old Rules No Longer Apply. National Public Radio, October 16, 2013. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2013/10/15/234771573/the-1973-arab-oil-embargo-the-old-rules-no-longer-apply. Accessed October 19, 2017.
Ross, Michael L. 2013. How the 1973 Oil Embargo Saved the Planet. Foreign Affairs, Otober 15, 2013. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-america/2013-10-15/how-1973-oil-embargo-saved-planet. Accessed October 19, 2017.