A Rude Awakening
U.S. crude oil production continued to increase after World War II, peaking in 1970, at a production of 9.6 million barrels per day. From this high mark, the United States suffered a persistent slide in production for decades.
Coming almost immediately after the peak in U.S. oil production, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo of 1973–1974 was a rude awakening. The United States had experienced other shortages in the many decades of previous oil history, including the West Coast Oil Famine of 1920, probably the first oil shock of the transportation era.11 But the 1973–1974 experience was several orders of magnitude larger than any previous supply interruption, and it galvanized the attention of the American public, which was forced for the first time in memory to wait in line to fuel its cars.
Within days after the initiation of the oil embargo, President Nixon put the United States on the road to energy independence, declaring on November 7, 1973, “Let us set as our national goal, in the spirit of Apollo, with the determination of the Manhattan Project, that by the end of this decade we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy source.” Ever since that time, the nation has been on the long road to that elusive and seemingly ever-receding goal, with every president since Richard Nixon renewing the pledge and commitment to energy independence.12
Thus, the three decades that followed the oil embargo were largely unhappy ones for energy in the United States. For oil—the critical energy source—the story was one of ever-increasing usage, ever-falling production, and ever-larger imports, and the same was largely true of natural gas. Even in those times, and continuing to the present day, coal has presented no supply problems. Presently, the United States has about 240 billion metric tons of coal, and even though it is producing almost 1 billion metric tons per year, that is less than one-half of 1% of proved reserves. “Proved reserves” are essentially in-ground resources confidently known to exist that can be extracted profitably under current economic conditions. Generally, “reserves” refers to “proved reserves.” Put another way, the United States has almost 250 years’ worth of coal at present levels of consumption, and it is actually producing more than it consumes. With oil and gas, the situation has been quite otherwise.