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Energy Lessons for Europe and the U.S. from the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo

Author: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
January 15, 2009
Huffington Post


Across eastern and central Europe, anger is rising over the cutoff of Russian natural gas due to the dispute between Russia and Ukraine. While feeling angry is justified in such a crisis, the governments in this region would be best advised not to get mad at Russia but to get more secure in energy supplies and smarter in energy usage. They and the Obama administration could learn valuable lessons from how the United States responded to the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo.

On October 16, 1973, the Arab countries of OPEC embargoed oil supplies to the United States in retaliation for Washington's decision to aid Israel during the Yom Kippur War. U.S. oil use prior to the embargo had been increasing and was projected to continue increasing with no end in sight. When the embargo struck, the United States produced 17 percent of its electricity with oil. About 31 percent of U.S. homes used oil for heating. Gas-guzzling cars and light trucks averaged a paltry 14.5 miles per gallon. Even though the United States had notice of an impending oil price increase, the embargo forced action.

The U.S. government and consumers responded to the energy crisis on multiple fronts, including: forming a strategic petroleum reserve, replacing oil-based electricity with coal, natural gas, and nuclear energy, substituting oil-based heating with electricity and natural gas, and increasing energy efficiency in vehicles and appliances. By the mid-1990s, more than two decades after taking these steps, the United States used oil for only two percent of its electricity, cut home heating oil usage in half, and almost doubled vehicle fuel efficiency standards.

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