Looking Back at Energy Policy in the 1970’s

Recently I have spent some time cleaning up some boxes in my basement, as ‘requested’ by my wife. Three of the boxes contained personal files from my several years as Staff Scientist with the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee in the mid 1970’s. This was the period following the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-4 when the U.S. first began to think seriously about energy policy. The history of this period is still largely to be written, and it promises to be a rich history. It also represents a unique period in recent American political history in that Democrats and Republicans occasionally cooperated to pass legislation that was deemed to be in the national interest.

Reviewing the files in the boxes took me several days because I.found the contents much more interesting than anticipated after 35 years of non-attention. I also will donate the files to the Senate Archives after I have absorbed more of and thought more about the contents.

The Oil Embargo focused U.S. attention on the country’s significant and increasing dependence on imported oil from unstable and often unfriendly parts of the globe. While only about a quarter of total oil consumption was affected at the time, the Embargo was a rude shock to Americans when they had to endure higher prices and long lines at gas stations and even alternate day access to the pumps based on their license plate numbers.

Suddenly, energy became a dominating issue and the Ford Administration and the Congress were struggling to reassure the American public and devise policies that addressed this increasing import dependence. Lots of disagreements ensued, particularly on oil pricing, but attention also began to be focused on limiting energy demand and indigenous energy resources. Thus was born a large push for greater use of America’s large resources of coal and for increased use of nuclear power. Most economists talked of the one-to-one relationship between gross national product and energy consumption (not true, as has subsequently been demonstrated) and a favorite theme of nuclear supporters at the time was to call for a “doubling every decade”, meaning that we should double the number of nuclear power plants every ten years until the turn of the century. It was also a time when domestic oil production had just peaked and natural gas supplies were thought to be in limited supply. This led to restrictions on the use of natural gas, reduced use of oil for power generation, announcements of many new nuclear power plant construction projects, increased attention to reducing energy demand in buildings, industry, and transportation, attention to non-fossil fuel energy resources (read ‘renewables’), and calls for a national energy strategy. In the intervening years we’ve made progress on a number of these issues, some more than others, but we still lack a national energy strategy, a critical missing piece as we penetrate further into the 21st century.

A major step forward was the passage in 1975 of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA – Public Law 94-163), the country’s first comprehensive energy legislation. It passed that summer in the House by more than a 3:1 margin and by 3:1 in the Senate, triggering a 3-month House-Senate Conference to iron out differences. The bill, as finally negotiated, was signed by President Ford just before Christmas that year despite Republican threats of a Presidential veto. It created many features of our current energy scene, which are discussed below. I also want to recognize those I consider the major legislative leaders, both Republican and Democrat, who fought for this legislation across party lines and brought it to the President’s desk. I do not believe that they have yet received the full recognition that they richly deserve.

EPCA’s primary goals were to increase energy supply, reduce demand, put a focus on energy efficiency, and give the President more tools with which to respond to energy supply disruptions. It’s primary actions were to:
– establish the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The need for such a reserve had been recognized for decades, since the 1940’s, but the Oil Embargo underscored the critical need for such a reserve.
– Part B/Title III established the Energy Conservation Program which gave “authority to develop, revise, and implement minimum energy conservation standards for appliances and equipment.” It also authorized an appliance labeling program, to assist consumers in making energy- and cost-wise purchasing decisions.
– Part A/Title III established the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for new automobile fleets. This legislation, which remained unamended for 32 years, is still the nation’s most impactful energy conservation measure.
– other provisions included loan guarantees to encourage domestic coal and oil production by smaller firms, and additional presidential authority to act in times of emergencies.

The principal legislative leaders behind EPCA (see photos below) included Fritz Hollings (D-SC) who was the prime mover in the Senate of the CAFE legislation, Warren Magnuson (D-WA) who chaired the Senate Committee On Commerce, Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson (D-WA) who chaired the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Ed Muskie (D-ME) who chaired the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Chuck Percy (R-IL), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and John Tunney (D-CA), all strong Senate supporters of energy conservation, John Dingell (D-MI) who chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Harley Staggers (D-WV) who chaired the House Science and Technology Committee, and Phil Sharp (D-IN) who shepherded the CAFE legislation through the House. One must also give credit to President Gerald ‘Gerry’ Ford of Michigan who signed the bill into law despite severe pressure not to from many of his constituents and advisors. All deserve the thanks of a grateful nation for putting national interest ahead of party politics as we don’t do too often today.

My final thought is the recognition that critical energy issues were clearly identified in the 1970’s, 40 years ago, but that progress since then has been slower than then hoped for. This has hurt the country in terms of preparing for the future (wje still lack a national energy policy codified by the Congress), less job creation and economic growth in clean energy industries, and unnecessary environmental degradation. We have made progress in the years following the scary wake-up call to the nation following the Oil Embargo and the Iran-Iraq War of the late 1970’s when global oil production was curtailed. Nevertheless, we can and must do better in the future if we are to successfully combat global warming and climate change (this became a public issue only after Jim Hansen at NASA began to talk about the issue in 1979) and ensure America’s place in the emerging and inevitable renewable energy society.

In order, left-to-right: Sen. Ernest ‘Fritz’ Hollings, Sen. Warren Magnuson, Sen. Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, Sen. Ed Muskie Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sen. John Tunney, Sen. Charles ‘Chuck’ Percy, Rep. John Dingell, Rep. Harley Staggers, Rep. Plil Sharp.


Gustaf Olsson

Thank you Allan for this exciting insight into energy politics. In my own country Sweden the oil crises in the 1970s were quite dramatic, since we depend 100% on imported oil. We had to leave our cars at home for extended periods.

We also lack a future looking energy policy. Nuclear reactors still support our electric power generation by about 40%, but the reactors are getting old. A lot of talk about limiting the carbon footprint, but too much words and too little action. So far we are lucky to have 45% of our electrical power from hydro. As engineers we have to communicate our messages to the policy makers. Thank you for this, Allan!