One aspect of Richard Nixon’s presidency that still has far-reaching consequences today is his effort to deal with the issues created by America’s consumption of steadily decreasing energy sources.
At the start of the Administration, in 1969, this did not seem to be much of an issue. In the late 1930s, vast oil reserves were found in Saudi Arabia and what was then the British protectorate of Kuwait. Shortly after the end of World War II, full-scale production and exportation of petroleum from these nations began. This seemingly boundless and ever-increasing supply of cheap energy was the trigger for unprecedented changes in the American economy. The price of gas rose less than two percent per year for a quarter-centry after World War II, helping to ensure low inflation for American goods, and encouraging consumer spending at levels unimaginable since the 1920s. Low fuel costs spurred Americans to buy cars and travel more, and thus made necessary the creation of the interstate highway system which helped secure the pre-eminent economic position of the United States.

In the opening years of President Nixon’s first term, concerns about energy were tied to concerns about the environment. For example, worries about air pollution led to studies recommending the use of unleaded gasoline. But during that time several studies were published suggesting that at the rate of consumption then prevalent, oil reserves in the Arab countries could be completely exhausted sometime in the first half, or perhaps the first third, of the twenty-first century.

In 1968, enormous oil reserves were discovered in Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic coast of the state. It soon became apparent that a large-scale pipeline project would be needed to transport the fuel to the comparatively ice-free port of Anchorage, and, although this would make possible oil production on a scale larger than even that of Texas and Oklahoma, at the time the plentiful supply of fuel in the United States made it a low priority. But President Nixon kept this information in mind, and from time to time conferred about energy matters with his aide John C. Whitaker, a geologist familiar with the issues involved.

Also in 1971, and 1972, the President, in several speeches and messages to Congress, mentioned the importance of developing resources as as shale oil, and of making Alaskan oil production feasible. On June 13, 1973, he delivered a nationwide speech in which the latter proposal was stressed. Sixteen days later he established the Energy Policy Office and appointed former Colorado Governor John A. Love its director. (Later, newspapers and TV broadcasters began to refer to Love as the “energy czar,” making him the first of many “czars” to work in the executive branch of the Federal government.) But these remarks and actions were made in the context of larger domestic programs and proposals and received comparatively little attention.

An ample supply of energy has long been recognized as a central element in a healthy economy. To improve the quality of life for all, it is also important that Americans have energy that is clean, energy that does not pollute. President Nixon Statement About Government-Industry Cooperation in Energy Resource Development. President Nixon – Statement About Government-Industry Cooperation in Energy Resource, September 26, 1971.

But this changed almost overnight, with a series of unexpected events. On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Jordan decided to attack Israel on that nation’s most sacred holiday, Yom Kippur. Thanks to the President’s quick actions on behalf of Israel, that nation was able to rapidly regain the initiative and defend itself. But Arab anger at this intervention was immediate, and the nations in the area that were major oil producers decided to retaliate.

On October 16, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) voted to raise the price of oil by 70% a barrel. Three days later, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries in OPEC, joined by Egypt, Jordan and Syria, voted to cut off oil supplies to the United States. Iran was the one Mideast country that continued to supply fuel to America, although doing so at the increased price decided by OPEC.

This provoked a fuel shortage in the United States. Gas began to run out at service stations across the country, and long lines for fuel became a familiar sight. Inflation had been a constant problem in the American economy since the lifting of most wage and price controls at the end of 1972, and the decrease in the availability of fuel made it difficult to transport goods, which in turn resulted in an increase in consumer prices. The cost of heating oil had dramatically increased the previous winter, and this continued high price, as cold weather set in during the fall of 1973, produced hardship in many households.

By the beginning of November 1973, the problem had grown to the point where “energy crisis” was a phrase more often seen in newspapers and heard on television than the word “Watergate.” On November 7, 1973, President Nixon, in a nationwide television address, spoke about the origins of the energy crisis; pointed out that he had spoken about the prospects of an energy shortage for two years; and offered a comprehensive solution for the crisis. The programs specified in this solution included a nationwide 55-mile-per-hour speed limit; increased use of car pools; the construction of the Alaskan oil pipeline; turning down themostates to below 70 degrees Fahrenheit; and a reduction in commercial aviation flights. These policies were presented as “Project Independence,” an overall effort to make the United States largely free of dependence on overseas fuel by 1980.

The speech also addressed some of the questions raised by President Nixon’s dismissal a few days before of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and the subsequent vote of the House of Representatives to have its Judiciary Committee consider articles of impeachment. The next day’s discussion of the speech on television and in newspapers focused mostly on this part of the address, so the President, on November 25, delivered another speech solely concerned with energy, introducing proposals more far-reaching than those presented before. These included a 15 percent reduction in the supply of gasoline to retailers; an equal cutback in domestic heating oil; a 25 percent cut in commercial heating oil; and, most controversially of all at the time, a call to service stations to voluntarily close for 27 hours starting at 9 pm Saturday. Before the speech, John A. Love urged the President to announce gasoline rationing, and when Nixon refused to do so, Love resigned as EPO director. On December 4, 1973, the EPO was reorganized as the Federal Energy Office, and William E. Simon, the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury, became its director.

The Arab oil embargo was extended to some European countries, with effects rather more drastic than those felt in America, with oil prices tripling and sometimes quadrupling, and motor traffic nearly coming to a standstill on some days. But in America, the winter of 1973-74, although a rough one, proved manageable. With the spring came better news, when Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger traveled to the Mideast to persuade the Arab nations to lift the embargo. On March 18, 1974, this was done, with Libya being the only holdout.

Meanwhile, the Nixon Administration focused on efforts to revamp and expand Federal involvement in the energy field. The Federal Energy Administration Act of 1974, signed into law by the President on May 7, transformed the Federal Energy Office into an agency with responsibilities approximating those of a Cabinet-level organization. (Three years later, this process was completed with the creation of the Department of Energy.) At the same time, William E. Simon, about to be sworn in as Treasury Secretary, transferred his responsibilities as “energy czar” to John C. Sawhill.

From May until early August of 1974, the Nixon Administration, despite the pressures on it resulting from the House impeachment hearings and court battles over Watergate, continued to work on far-ranging programs to enable the nation to be self-sufficient in the energy field.

In his 2007 biography Richard Nixon: A Life In Full, Conrad Black states that the thirty-seventh President was “at the time of writing,” the last Chief Executive “to take energy matters seriously.” This is not fair to Presidents Ford and Carter, both of whom were forced by escalating inflation to work extensively on trying to curb it by getting the nation to decrease the consumption of expensive fuel.

But it is true that, after the inflationary spiral came to an end in 1982, subsequent economic growth encouraged less attention to the development of alternative energy resources except in regions where these were abundant – shale oil in Colorado, wind power in the Western states. In the 2008 election, with two overseas wars using up fuel at a considerable rate, energy policy again came to the fore, and President Obama has called for many initiatives focused on the kind of self-sufficiency that his predecessor called for in November 1973. In years to come President Nixon’s energy policies will be a touchstone for succeeding presidencies.