DOUBLE nickel was a sign of the times in the 1970s, a literal expression of the speed limit imposed on most Americans. The 55-mile-per-hour limit was just one of the responses to the October 1973 Arab oil embargo.
Forty years on, legal speed limits have crept closer to 90 than 55. Drivers reach their destinations more quickly but burn less gasoline, thanks in part to fuel economies that are also partly due to the embargo. Forty years ago, two nickels times three (30 cents) would buy you a gallon of gas. The embargo changed that forever. Oil sold for $3.89 a barrel in 1973, scarcely more than the average price of a gallon of gas today.
USA Today, in a retrospective of the embargo's lasting effects, likens the energy shock of 40 years ago to the threat from climate change today. Not mentioned, oddly, is that a switch to coal for power generation was itself an outgrowth of the embargo. President Jimmy Carter in 1977 called the energy crisis the “moral equivalent of war.” Domestic sources of fuel, particularly coal, were mandated for making electricity.
President Barack Obama today sees coal as the moral equivalent of a disease. The switch to natural gas is embraced but only in lukewarm fashion. Carter and his predecessor, Gerald Ford, reacted to the embargo's effect with automobile fuel-efficiency standards and pledges to replace imported oil with domestic coal and gas. Obama reacts to climate change with pie-in-the-sky policy favoring heavily subsidized renewable energy.
In 1973, the top supplier of imported oil to the U.S. was Canada. It still is, but Obama has blocked a pipeline that would facilitate more Canadian supplies. In 1973, Saudi Arabia was the fourth-largest supplier of oil imported into the U.S. Today, Saudi Arabia is No. 2.
In 1973, Henry Kissinger was secretary of state in a country reeling from the sudden curtailment of oil supplied from the Mideast. Today, Kissinger told USA Today's Wendy Koch, “We're better prepared now, by far.” The Saudis have “lost the opportunity to blackmail us.”
Why are we better prepared? Domestic energy production has mushroomed. Hydraulic fracturing was extant in 1973 (even much earlier, actually) but its recent usage, combined with newer drilling technologies, has opened vast reserves.
Saudi Arabia is our second-biggest supplier because of choice, not because we have no choice. Obama administration energy policies run counter to the notion that never again should this country put itself in the position of being blackmailed by a foreign supplier half a world away. In 1973, when Libya, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members stopped oil shipments to the U.S., oil prices tripled. Lines formed at gas stations. Stations had limited hours and often ran out of gas. Even the clock was affected: Year-round daylight-saving time was imposed.
The United States remains vulnerable to supply disruptions, but these mostly translate to temporary higher prices rather than wholesale policy changes. For the Obama administration, supply concerns are of far less interest than climate change. The war on coal is raging and spreading to natural gas. Oil is tolerated, but only just.
Six years after the embargo, Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof. Climate change wasn't among the reasons. The double nickel speed limit, imposed by states under threat of losing federal highway funds, lingered in some form until 1995. By some estimates, the lower limit reduced fuel consumption by only 1 percent or less.
Rocker Sammy Hagar sang the sentiments of a nation when he crooned, “Write me up for 125/Post my face, wanted dead or alive/Take my license, all that jive/I can't drive 55.”
No thanks to Obama administration energy policy, we no longer have to.