Amidst this backdrop of cultural and political change, a major energy crisis hit the U.S., grinding many aspects of American life to a halt.
The oil crisis and its impact
In October 1973, 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.
Nixon and Project Independence
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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 and encouraging mass transit and carpooling. Other actions involved adjusting work and school schedules and returning the country to Daylight Saving Time.
Additionally, Project Independence shifted industries, utilities and power plants to the use of coal and limited the supply of heating oil to offices, homes, etc.
Bringing down the temperature
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%.
The oil embargo, lifted
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 was 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 Jimmy Carter created the Department of Energy.
In January of that year, when the nation faced a natural gas shortage, Carter asked Americans to lower their thermostats once again by three degrees cooler than his predecessor asked – a chilly 65 degrees.