America’s Never-Ending Oil Consumption

Why presidents have found it so difficult to ask people to just use less

Workers at a fracking well in Colorado (Brennan Linsley / AP)

The United States accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but it consumes about 20 percent of the global energy supply. The average American citizen uses nearly two times as much fossil fuel as a person living in Great Britain. Americans love cars and big homes and hate public transportation. Constant warnings about climate change and the catastrophic consequences of American energy habits apparently aren’t enough to stop the temptation to consume. Although cars are becoming more efficient, Americans are driving more frequently and across longer distances.

On the campaign trail, even as Democratic presidential candidates talk about clean energy, they don’t often discuss the need to use less. Bernie Sanders says climate change is a moral issue and Hillary Clinton promises to deploy half a billion solar panels by the end of her first term in office. But politicians seem wary of telling Americans they need to cut back.

The cost of delivering that message is high. It’s difficult for politicians to summon the political will to do so when voters are most concerned with economic growth and prosperity. Public-opinion data reveals that Americans want their fuel reliable, safe, and, above all, cheap. Even when people want to fix local problems that come with health risks, like high emissions, they have little willingness to pay more or use less to prevent global warming, according to a Harvard/MIT survey.

Few political dividends seem to come from taking on conservation, it seems. Just ask Jimmy Carter.

During the 1970s, American leaders were forced to recognize for the first time that the nation used too much oil. In the late 1960s, the United States appeared to be reaching its geological peak of production. New environmental restrictions also limited the extent of production. Feeling the shrinking domestic supply and growing consumption demand, especially as his reelection battle was looming, President Richard Nixon lifted previous import prohibitions. Between 1970 and 1973, oil imports more than doubled, reaching one-third of all usage.

In 1973, the oil-producing Arab nations, through the OPEC cartel, imposed an embargo on the United States in response to its support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The impact was traumatic. In late October, Nixon’s presidential energy advisor, John Love, warned: “Considerable public fear and indignation, cries of industry conspiracy and government ineptitude, and possibly real hardships, appear imminent.” Americans “have an energy crisis,” Nixon said in a televised address to Americans that November. He called for mild conservation efforts combined with more fossil-fuel production, including the development of nuclear energy and coal. Congressional Democrats like Henry “Scoop” Jackson pushed for mandatory rationing.

The public sense of crisis was palpable. Jesse Jackson proposed a moratorium on the unemployed having to pay their utility bills. Time’s December 1973 cover story, “The Big Car: End of the Affair,” featured an automobile visibly weeping from its headlights. Anxious motorists arrived at gas stations before sunrise fearing there would be no supplies. People bought locks for their tanks to prevent others from siphoning off their fuel.

The greatest act of desperation came when truckers decided to protest. In early December, 1,800 independent truckers tied up the Delaware Memorial Bridge in New Jersey, creating a 12-mile back up for seven hours. One hundred twelve miles of the Ohio Turnpike were also shut down. “We figured if trucks could do without fuel, the country could damn well do without trucks,” shouted one protester. When members of Congress returned to their districts over the Christmas recess, they encountered hours-long lines of drivers waiting to fill up their tanks. In Suffolk County, New York, 76 percent of residents identified the energy crisis as the country’s most serious problem, according to a poll circulated in the Nixon White House; Watergate came in at only 15 percent. When Tonight Show host Johnny Carson opened with a joke about a shortage on toilet paper in late December, thousands of consumers went to the market the next day to stock up.

Without any sense of irony, Nixon made a public appeal to Americans to cut back—from Disney World in Florida. Unless Americans voluntarily conserved, the government would have to distribute ration coupons. Oil companies also urged cutbacks: Amoco replaced its previous ads about the open road with images of Johnny Cash telling Americans to “Drive Slow and Save Gas.” And Congress took baby steps to diminish usage: In 1973 it created a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit on federal highways.

OPEC finally ended its embargo in March of 1974, but the energy crisis remained a central issue in American politics throughout the 1970s. Every aspect of public policy and daily life was touched by high energy prices, which did not fall. Instead of rolling out reforms, government officials looked for ways to obtain more supplies. Democrats like House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy pushed for price controls and government allocations, policies designed to protect middle-income consumers. Meanwhile, Republicans pushed for deregulation. In 1975, President Gerald Ford—working closely with advisers such as Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, and Alan Greenspan—successfully pushed legislation that would gradually reduce federal control over oil markets.

But in 1976, Jimmy Carter came into office determined to end the crisis. His term began during one of the coldest winters of American history, which triggered a heating-fuel shortage. Days into his presidency, he delivered a now-famous televised address about energy. “We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren,” he told America from in front of a fireplace, wearing a cardigan. “We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

The president had solar panels installed on the White House roof and called for a billion-dollar investment in solar-power research. He pushed for legislation, including the 1978 National Energy Act, which created federal grants for energy-efficient homes and buildings. He also led the creation of the Department of Energy, a cabinet-level body charged with dealing with these issues. But he was not able to find support for an oil tax. Many Americans didn’t want a plan that added up to “Pay More, Buy Less,” as The Boston Globe put it.

In the summer of 1979, when the Iranian Revolution led to a decline in the global oil supply, OPEC announced yet another substantial price increase. Oil prices were up more than 1000 percent since the start of the decade.

The long lines returned. Fistfights broke out as drivers accused each other of cutting. One Brooklyn man fatally shot another in front of his pregnant wife. Ten days later, another man was stabbed to death. “One line was shorter and they both tried for that,” an officer explained. That June, Levittown, Pennsylvania, went up in flames in a gas riot with protesters chanting, “More gas, more gas!”

Jimmy Carter was failing on his energy agenda. Members of Congress were “literally afraid to go home” over July 4th, noted Carter’s domestic adviser Stuart Eizenstat, for fear of encountering “angry constituents.” More than half of states enacted odd-even rationing laws, which designated the day a person could fill up based on the last digit of his license plate—that is, if supplies were available.

Carter did not give up. In mid-July, he once again asked Americans to cut back.  “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” he said. “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”  He told Americans they had to drive less, carpool more, and use public transportation. “Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense—I tell you it is an act of patriotism.”

The speech didn’t work. Carter’s approval ratings continued to plummet. Conservation did not seem to be what most Americans wanted. And Americans blamed Washington for the panic at the pump. “Carter, Kiss My Gas,” became a popular bumper sticker.

Right up until the end of his time in office, Carter pushed for reforms. In 1980, at his insistence, Congress created the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, which provided massive financial support for synthetic-fuel-manufacturing plants. Shortly before leaving office, he persuaded Congress to enact the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected vast amounts of land from becoming sites of oil exploration and production.

But President Carter was never able to build a strong political coalition to support limits on oil consumption. “The basic problem is that there is no constituency for an energy program,” said James Schlesinger, the country’s first energy secretary. “There are many constituencies opposed. But the basic constituency for the program is the future.” Most Americans saw the energy crisis as a shortage that threatened their way of life. As the novelist John Updike wrote in Rabbit Is Rich, the nation was “running out of gas”;  knew “the Great America Ride is ending.”

Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, had a very different vision of energy policy. “First we must decide that ‘less’ is not enough,” Reagan said on the campaign trail. “Next we must remove government obstacles to energy production. … It is no program simply to say ‘use less energy.’”

Reagan delivered. On January 28, 1981, his first major act was to issue an executive order that removed all remaining federal controls on the domestic production and distribution of oil and gasoline. “The long national nightmare of energy regulation is over,” noted one columnist in The Washington Post. “In his first major political decision as president, Ronald Reagan has pardoned the oil companies.”

Reagan’s actions were popular. Smaller Japanese cars like the Datsun, which had been all the rage in the 1970s, were replaced by bigger gas-guzzlers. In his hit song “I Can’t Drive Fifty-Five, ” Sammy Hagar sang to an imaginary cop, “Go on and write me up for 125. Post my face wanted dead or live,” capturing the feeling many had about the restrictions of the previous decade. Soon after his reelection, Reagan removed the White House solar panels.

Republicans also expanded America’s military presence in the Persian Gulf, in part so that the U.S. could protect its access to resources abroad. The build-up had started under Carter in 1980. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the president had announced the “Carter Doctrine,” which would require a massive military presence in the Gulf. As part of an increase in defense spending, Reagan dedicated 300,000 troops to the region. In 1991, when Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops into Kuwait, George H.W. Bush, now in the Oval Office, saw the action as a threat to the global oil supply. The stakes, he told his Cabinet, were nothing less than “U.S. reliability, the potential domination of Gulf energy resources … [and] international order in what I call the post-postwar era.”

In 2016, Americans are at another crossroads. The success of fracking seems to have created the false impression among some consumers that energy is not a problem. Oil imports are down, prices have plummeted, and there is no shortage of domestic energy. With gas prices in decline, the demand for bigger cars and SUVs has gone up. Given that more than a quarter of all greenhouse-gas emissions come from the transportation sector, any successful plan to curb global warming will depend on changes in consumption habits.

But there’s also greater opportunity for reform than there was in the Carter era. The Georgia Democrat led an incredibly divided party, which made any deal in Congress difficult, even though Democrats held a sizable majority. The party was split between Northern liberals, who insisted on keeping prices down, and the representatives of southern producers, who, in the words of a popular song by the Folkel Minority, said they would rather “Freeze a Yankee” than embrace production restrictions. At the same time, conservatives criticized the costs of government intervention, which resulted in powerful arguments against reform. As Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning free-market economist and leading critic of Carter’s energy agenda put it, “There are very few taxpayers, I believe, who think they are getting their money’s worth for the 40 percent of their income which is being spent for them by government bureaucrats.” And the Cold War made international treaties on conservation impossible.

Today’s political landscape is different. In 2015, more people got jobs in solar and wind than in the oil industry, and employment in renewables was three times greater than in coal. As the International Energy Administration has reported, the United States has posted two consecutive years of growth without a corresponding increase in its emissions, suggesting the country can keep global warming in check even as the economy picks up. Instead of urging Americans to pay more and use less, as Carter did, the next president can encourage Americans to grow green. The Paris Climate Agreement also offers cause for optimism; 195 countries around the world have committed to cutting pollution that creates climate change.

The hardest challenge, in both Paris and America, is overcoming the sense that governments cannot be trusted to effectively fix the world’s energy problems, which may be the most damaging legacy of the 70s-era energy crisis. But that kind of thinking may lead the U.S. to make the same mistakes it did four decades ago: failing to use a major crisis as an opportunity to change how people blithely consume the resources of the world.