It’s 1973. The Vietnam War officially ends. Roe vs. Wade becomes law. Disco is becoming mainstream.
But amidst this backdrop of cultural and political change, a major energy crisis hit the United States, grinding many aspects of American life to a halt.
That October, the U.S. was hit with an oil embargo by the Arab nations of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The embargo, which cut oil production and banned petroleum exports, was placed in retaliation against the U.S. and other countries supporting Israel during the Arab-Israeli War.
At the time, the U.S. imported a third of its oil from the Middle East, making the country vulnerable to OPEC’s suspension of oil shipments. Gas shortages became rampant, long lines of cars formed at gas stations, and oil prices nearly quadrupled. Within a few months, the country’s economic output dropped by an estimated $15 billion.
President Richard Nixon attempted to assuage the crisis in November by enacting some of the country’s first major energy-conscious measures. Called Project Independence, the response included various ways Americans could reduce their energy usage during the oil embargo and reduce their dependence on foreign energy over the next several years.
A few of the actions Nixon announced in Project Independence included decreasing speed limits on the highways to 50 miles per hour; returning the country to Daylight Saving Time; adjusting work and school schedules; encouraging mass transit and carpooling; shifting industries, utilities and power plants to the use of coal; and limiting the supply of heating oil to offices, homes, etc.
Nixon also asked Americans to lower their thermostats by at least 6 degrees. The hope was to reach an average daytime temperature of 68 degrees in homes, helping curtail the consumption of heating oil and coal-powered electricity across the nation.
This could have been seen as a substantial ask of the American people, as the winter season was ramping up and temperatures were beginning to drop. Plus, temperatures of 70 to 72 degrees were believed to be typical for homes in the wintertime, and there was no method for federal oversight of thermostats of every home. Because of these considerations, the lowering of thermostats was done on a voluntary basis.
While there was no official mandate for some of Nixon’s requested actions, by December, electricity use decreased by 10% and gas consumption dropped by 9%
Then, on March 18, 1974 — as winter drew to a close and spring began to peek through — the Arab oil ministers lifted the oil embargo.
Although the U.S. made it through its first energy crisis, it was far from unscathed; however, lessons about energy usage and energy independence were learned.
In 1975, legislation passed that created the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, enacting the first standards for fuel efficiency in automobiles. Two years later, the administration under President Carter created the Department of Energy. And in January of that year, when the nation faced a natural gas shortage, President Carter asked Americans to lower their thermostats once again, but three degrees cooler than his predecessor asked for — a chilly 65 degrees.