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How Congress Planned To Solve The 1970s Energy Crisis

Representative Mo Udall's ambitious strategy to wean the United States off fossil fuels by the year 2000

Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

That fantastic machine, the US trillion-dollar economy and America's unprecedented living standard have largely been built on energy extracted from oil, gas and coal. These "fossil fuels" heat our homes, cook our food, run our factories, mills and railroads. They gave us the auto age and the space age. For decades we have been led to believe that supplies of these fuels would last almost indefinitely at low cost. Working on that assumption, national policy since World War II has discouraged imports of foreign oil so that production of our own "unlimited" reserves would not be stifled. In the 30 years we were locked into that policy, our population burgeoned by some 60 million and each American increased his energy intake by three times. It is now clear that our assumptions were wrong. We have been on an energy binge, and the hangover could be protracted and painful.

First, a few statistics: Americans, six percent of the people on this planet, last year consumed 40 percent of all energy used.

Since 1950, when we led the world in energy consumption, we have tripled (our) electrical demands.

By 1970, our production of gas and oil began to peak out, so that now we are using more gas than we find and more oil than we refine.

• If energy demand were to level off today, the story would be alarming enough; but every study and projection tells of an even more frightening future. This year we'll have to find new energy for the 11,000,000 gas burning autos Detroit will produce and the 2,500,000 new homes constructed. Moreover there are the undeveloped countries with their rising expectations, the exploding Common Market, the inventive Japanese, the Chinese looking for new trade relationships, and the development-minded Russians—all of whom will be looking for more gas, oil and coal, and some of it from the same markets we will seek to tap.

And when they compete with us it will be with fire in their eyes because they know that much of the world's precious oil reserve is spent moving big American cars, sometimes three to a family, currently accounting for 48 percent of the world's autos and 55 percent of all the gas consumed; that the British and Germans are getting along with approximately half as much per capita, and their standards of living aren't so bad; and that the lion's share of the additional energy demanded by Americans will be for uses others view as outrageous luxuries like air conditioning, for which 210 million Americans consume as much energy as 800 million Chinese use for every purpose! One additional bit of bad news is that most of the world's remaining known petroleum reserves lie in the nations of the Mideast whose current demeanor toward the United States is less friendly than to many of our major energy competitors.

Most of us were asleep at the switch when all this happened and we're in for some tough adjustments. The Midwest oil shortage last winter was not a one-shot accident, but rather, in all probability, a minor preview of the years just ahead. For unless I miss my guess, gasoline shortages and electrical blackouts will be our regular companions for the rest of the 1970s.

Everyone in Washington has "solutions" for the energy crisis. Two of them, the centerpieces of the President's recent Energy Message, I find highly questionable, and, when tied together as an exclusive package, totally unacceptable. They are nonsolutions.

The first is to simply buy more oil from the Arabs. It won't work. The United States has been the world's greatest trader and producer of modern times. But in 1971 we sold fewer goods abroad than we bought— the first time that happened since 1892. One big reason: we paid out $7 billion for foreign oil, a sum that almost exactly matched our trade deficit, itself a major culprit of inflation at home. Analysts claim that our 1971-72 dollar devaluations were in no small part due to the large dollar balances in the hands of oil-producing countries and were used to make a "run" on US currency in international markets. If we accept un- bridled consumer demand for energy as a fact of life, we can count on buying $14 billion of Mideast oil by 1975 and some $30 billion a year by 1980. What will these kinds of purchases do to the dollar and where will we find the American exports to pay for them? But if the economic implications of such a dependency are worrisome, the political considerations are down- right frightening. How would it affect our commitment to Israel? Even if a political solution were found to current Mideast divisions, could we really plan on a constant supply of energy transfusions from countries whose policies can be reversed on a day's notice by a coup d'état or by a sheik who turns unfriendly?

A second nonsolution is the all-out dig-dam-drill approach. As blackouts and gas station shortages begin to hit more and more, we'll hear advice whose effect, though tucked into nice euphemisms, will be this: forget all environmental and health considerations and get on with strip mining for coal, both on private and scenic public lands of the West. After all, coal is cheap and accessible. We'll also be advised to get more gas and oil by drilling from the fishing waters of Maine to the beaches of North Carolina and off the coast of California. And before this chorus has ended, there will be persuasive arguments for building hydroelectric dams on every last river site.

For a few years we'll have no choice but to buy some Mideast oil. And there is some digging and drilling we should and can do without environmental damage. But neither solution is tolerable in the long run. For sooner or later (20-60 years depending on how pessimistic you are) mankind is out of gas and oil. In a few centuries or less, you can scratch coal.

The harsh truth is that eventually we need permanent, renewable, clean, large-scale energy sources, like the windmill or the old waterwheel that consume nothing and pollute nothing. We have some cushions that will let us overdraw our energy bank account for a time, but we should aim right now at a balanced energy budget before the year 2000. The question is how do we do it? Part of the answer lies in the experience of the 1960s when we spent $25 billion for a crash program that harnessed the brains and enthusiasm of the scientific community and put a man on the moon; we desperately need, now, that kind of program for energy research and development, and we ought to give it that kind of money and that sense of urgency.

While we search for long-range solutions, we can buy time in several ways. First we should zero-in on the incredible and wasteful way we use our fossil fuels. Even assuming—as I do not—that every kilowatt burned and every auto mile traveled is essential, we could find ways to provide those same kilowatts and miles with far less gas, oil and coal. For example conventional electric power stations extract only 30 percent of the potential energy in each unit of coal or oil they burn. We can make substantial improvements here and have more electricity from the same quantity of fuel. In addition, we have too many home appliances. But without reducing the number, we can better design appliances to do the same work using far less current. We waste immense quantities of heat and light in our homes, offices and factories. We can have nearly the same levels of comfort if we will design and insulate buildings and heating and cooling machinery to operate in less wasteful ways. Finally, coal requires great energy to transport, and it is the worst polluter when it bums. We should perfect promising new processes that may enable us to turn coal into pipeline gas, solving both problems at one stroke.

This short-range program, plus the energy conservation efforts discussed later, will help buy time; it may take two decades to prove out the permanent power sources needed for the long haul. Legislation now pending, and a new bill I will offer, will create government-industry development corporations to go to work on such possibilities as these:

The fast breeder nuclear reactor. We are running out of nuclear fuel, uranium, but the breeder reactor creates more nuclear fuel than it bums. The Nixon administration is already fully committed to its development. However, there are serious health, safety and environmental hazards that have yet to be solved.

• Nuclear fusion. This is a much more complicated and hence dubious source of electricity directly converted from atomic energy. It is held out by respected scientists as the ultimate answer, with none of the environmental demerits of the breeder, but its mysteries may not be worked out for decades, if ever.

Geothermal power. This is the heat of the earth that man has always seen in volcanoes and geysers. The US is far behind in this technology.

•  Ocean tides and currents. There is power here if we harness it. The windmill provides the cleanest mass-produced energy known to man; like methods lending themselves to more universal use must be pursued.

Solar energy. Harnessing and transmitting the heat of the sun into everyday energy production by using massive reflectors and other devices.

• Long shots. While we're at it, we ought to look at every other possible lead. One German scientist makes an impressive case for large, 400-foot high windmill farms as a supplement to other power systems.

While the scientists and engineers are at work, there are things we can do in 1973. They involve new attitudes and habits of energy thrift and conservation. For the fact is Americans have been energy glutton champions. We could keep most of the comforts and conveniences of our present high living standards and "the American way of life" and still cut home and personal energy consumption by one-third. For in time, we could help head off higher gasoline prices and/or rationing by cutting back on our extravagant use of the motor vehicle. Does your family really need that third car, the new snowmobile or motor home? Can you cut your monthly driving miles by 15-25 percent?

We can get commuters out of cars and into mass transit or car pools or neighborhood bus pools. Government can give this effort a big boost by opening up the Highway Trust Fund to help cities pay for subways, new buses and so on. The Senate approved such a plan this year, but once again the House, under pressure from established highway construction and automobile interests, turned it down. We have to find ways to encourage commuters to live closer to the places where they work.

But while we are cutting down on auto miles, we have to recognize that under the best of circumstances, our living patterns will always require millions of private autos for point-to-point travel. Thus we must insist on government policies that encourage smaller cars with smaller engines.

Public attitudes and life-styles are affected by our friends in communications and advertising. With industry and government, they did their part to get us into this mess and they can help get us out. The electric industry should spread the message of energy thrift with the same vigor they taught us energy gluttony. Things like turning down the thermostat by five degrees in the winter and up five in the summer, buying smaller cars and fewer gadgets aren't all that wrenching or dramatic sacrifices. But if each of us takes some steps so that personal per capita energy consumption declines by one-third, we'd jointly be striking a blow for a sounder dollar, a cleaner environment, and a stronger, self-sufficient America.

President Nixon has suggested a new office of energy conservation to spark voluntary programs in the private sector and, more importantly, coordinate and direct the efforts of the disparate and far-reaching federal government, the most gluttonous energy user of them all. We need a hardboiled energy conservationist leading this office who will show us the way toward requiring the kind of insulation and heating and cooling units in new^ homes that are efficient in saving energy, informing us what appliances bum what quantities of electricity, and placing stiff luxury taxes on the wasteful ones; making war on loud, garrish neon signs. They contribute nothing to our country and they burn enough energy to bring on some shortages we can avoid; reforming our cockeyed electrical rate structures, a crazy system that rewards waste. If my home and your home are the same size and I burn twice as much electricity, the local utility company will penalize your thrift and reward my extravagance. The same is true of industry. Rate structures now decrease charges as use goes up—it ought to be the reverse.