Déjà vu – Lessons learned from the “Peak Oil” crises of 1973 & 1979

A book review by Alice Friedemann of: Howard Bucknell III.  1981.  Energy and the National Defense.  University of Kentucky Press.

About the author: Bucknell was once the director of the energy and national security project at Ohio State University.  At the time the book was published, in 1981, he was the president of John Addison Cobb Associates, in independent energy analysis firm.  He graduated in 1944 from the U.S. Naval Academy and commanded a number of ships, including nuclear-powered submarines.  He has a doctorate in political science from the University of Georgia.

This book is about the energy crises of the 1970s.  At the time, President Carter, Kissinger, Bucknell, and others thought this was the start of the energy descent.   It’s interesting to see what actions were taken, how energy was dealt with politically, the institutions created to solve the energy crisis, and the issues, failures, and problems encountered when trying to take action in what turned out to be the “dress rehearsal”.

Bucknell’s wrote this book partly to warn military planners that lightning raids on oil fields in the Middle East would be a really bad idea, and to get two main efforts started: liquefied synthetic fuels to solve the transportation problem, and energy conservation.

Making the Energy Transition

Bucknell summarizes past energy transitions and noted that it took forty to fifty years of social, economic, and political adaptations to switch from wood to coal and coal to oil.  The 1973 and 1979 oil shocks alerted everyone the time had come to switch to other sources of energy, in a timeframe much less than past energy transitions.

He felt it was hard for our government to prepare for the transition because planners had no idea what the likely reserves were, since private companies and foreign governments weren’t required to report verifiable data.

He explained why switching to new energy bases couldn’t be done easily, quickly, or cheaply, the need for multiple alternatives, and the economic and political problems in making a transition.

The economic barriers are formidable. Previous energy transitions were market driven.  But the new transition must be directed by the government due to the limited time and domestic oil supplies as well as the need for military protection during our vulnerability during the transition.

To make the switch in time, the federal government would need to direct and fund the research and initial capital investment.  The source and amounts of these funds is bound to become a major political issue.  Even with both private capital and public funds it’s not likely the nation could develop alternative energy resources in time to prevent social trauma. If imported oil was cut during the transition, the social disorder would become even worse.

He wasn’t sure how we could even find the capital to switch our energy base, since so much money was required, and the defense department would be competing for these funds.

Bucknell also wasn’t sure that our social, political, and economic structures could make it through the transition without being changed in terrible ways.  He felt it was impossible to take the required draconian measures in the very short time left without crushing democracy, and the results weren’t certain and might even  be plain wrong.  Within this “paradox lies the potential for chaos at home and disaster abroad”.

Bucknell criticized the energy studies of the 1970’s for being overly optimistic since they ignored the fact you can’t substitute one energy source for another.  For instance, nuclear power can’t substitute for oil in transportation.  These studies also ignored the “legal, ideological, technological, economic, and political difficulties” energy decisions move through.

He depicted one of the political barriers by asking the reader to imagine a politician announcing we’re “going electric”.  From now on, everything would be nuclear power driven.  Everyone would be up in arms, from the guy who just bought a car to the industrial, agricultural, transportation, and military sectors — all heavily invested in fossil fuel infrastructure.  He’d be thrown out of office.

Another interesting aspect of Bucknell’s book were charts of how large a piece of the energy pie the military has always taken, will continue to take, and how enormous their slice would be if we entered a major war.  He worried that during the transition, our weaknesses could lead to economic or military confrontations that would threaten our national security.

Most energy studies assumed there’d be a growing dependence on imported oil and minimized the need to produce synthetic fuels.   Bucknell felt that was a tragedy, since that would lead to continued voracious consumption of oil, shortening the time of our oil-based civilization and the time needed to make a transition.

Decreasing energy and higher prices would result in massive unemployment and depression, “even though a transition to a service economy is being made”.

He believed that if we wanted to preserve our society, our main preoccupation needed to focus on developing a number of energy sources, especially in transportation fuels.

It’s obvious that the social and economic future of industrial nations depends on energy at affordable prices.  The survival of our civilization “depends a great deal on what actions the United States takes, does not take, or even can take”.

Energy and Democracy

Bucknell says that just as democracy in Greece was founded on slave labor,  democracy here was founded on cheap and plentiful energy.  Energy decline will be the “most serious and far-reaching challenge faced by our nation since the Civil War”.

Democracy requires a large and strong middle class, but an energy decline will shrink the middle class and make it more likely the United States will not be stopped from undertaking military adventures.

In times of emergency, the actions we take change our form of government, such as when we sent many Japanese to internment camps during World War II.  Bucknell wondered what an energy crisis that lasted for a decade or more would do to our government.

In 1975 Henry Kissinger said there was no issue more basic to the future than the energy challenge.  Energy drove our economy and sustained modern civilization.  Without energy, nations risked rivalry and economic depression.  For Kissinger, the 1973 embargo meant we no longer had control over our economy or our progress, and our well-being was hostage to decisions made by others.

Bucknell doubts a democracy can make the decisions needed to survive before being overwhelmed by the obviously coming energy crisis, because the public’s understanding of the energy situation is so far removed from reality.  When given uncertain and contradictory information, the public believes what they want to believe.  And politicians rarely attempt to educate the public factually.

How the transition is made is important as well – if prices are used to change energy consumption, there are issues of economic and social inequality.  If oil exporters set prices, we risk economic instability, which is likely to lead to social and political instability, which then leads to “demagogues and terrorism”.

The only way dictatorship can be avoided and democracy survive, is to start early and begin moving forward.  The faster the transition is made, the less social disorder there’ll be, and time may be shorter than we think.

Bucknell concludes his book with a call to all of us as citizens to intelligently work hard together during the dangers of the next decades.  It would be a shame if the epitaph of the great American experiment in democracy were “Canceled due to a lack of energy”.

Bucknell on Solutions

Bucknell believed there was no one solution to replacing fossil fuels, and that synthetic fuels were critical to solve the transportation problem.  He also thought conservation very important, since it could mean the difference between having to wage war, and winning if attacked.   The National Research Council Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems reached similar conclusions in 1980, urging the development of synthetic liquid fuels, with an even higher priority on conservation of energy.

Bucknell believed that coal to oil was the best solution, but wasn’t sure how feasible it was. The ERDA “Coalcon” project, which attempted to convert coal to oil in an environmentally clean way, was terminated in 1977.  He speculated it was shut down due to bad management or an inability to cleanly process high-sulfur coal.  He noted that scale-up factors and costs from a quarter-scale demonstration model to a full-sized plant are seldom linear.

Since liquid coal was unlikely within ten years, he foresaw that coal would be burned instead to generate electricity, and create huge environmental problems.  Since the atmosphere at some point would become lethal, he said new liquid coal plants must be required to remove sulfur and other pollutants.

He was not hopeful about economic and political barriers being overcome to construct coal liquefaction plants. There was no chance the oil companies would build them, since they were driven by short-term profit-making goals.  Only the government could possibly build these plants, but when the Synthetic Fuel Corporation was proposed by President Carter, it was opposed by environmentalists as well as conservatives, who didn’t think the government should be involved in industrial production.

Other attractive fuels that could be liquefied, like heavy oils and tar sands, were more economic than coal liquefaction, but had the drawback of mainly being found outside the United States.

Bucknell knew that natural gas wouldn’t solve our problems, because production had peaked in 1973, and stated there were only twenty five years of uranium reserves unless we built breeder reactors.

Nor could Saudi Arabia pump much more oil.  He quotes Clifton C. Garvin, Jr., chairman of the Exxon Corporation, as saying that the maximum sustainable pumping rate for Saudi Arabia was about 10.4 mbpd.

Bucknell pointed out some of the limitations to solutions being proposed — city gas didn’t have enough heat content to support many industrial processes, and we needed more railroads to carry coal. He noted that the Department of Agriculture was in charge of alcohol production, which he said was already “a decision of questionable merit”.

Several quite adversarial debates in the typical “winner-take-all” fashion were preventing action from being taken.  Each side insisted their solution was the only approach.  For example, there was the “high-tech, hard science” group insisting centrally distributed electricity from large nuclear and solar plants was the only way to go, while the “low-tech” group countered with conservation and local wind and solar.

Then there were those who claimed we were finally about to get our comeuppance for using finite resources so wastefully.  They saw the energy crisis as a blessing, and sided with the environmentalists who argued against endless growth.  They believed pollution and other environmental harm needed to be factored into the cost of energy.

And how could you move forward when so many of the debates were about whether the energy crisis was real or not, politicians were blaming the opposite political party, and many were blaming the oil companies?

Energy Crisis as Seen in the 70s

Back in the 70s, the public was convinced oil companies were ripping off the public and engaged in conspiracies.  Bucknell is exasperated that neither the public nor the energy task force Nixon commissioned in 1969 grasped that there was a finite amount of oil, gas, and coal to fuel civilization.  This fact has “yet to be, perhaps cannot be, accepted by the American people”.

The first energy crisis struck America in 1973, but in 1976, none of the presidential candidates discussed the issue, because the public did not believe there was an energy crisis.

Carter decided to give the public the painful news in 1977, building interest up in his speech by releasing a CIA report which portrayed oil reserves running out.  The four percent of the public that was concerned about energy grew to half the population by the time Carter spoke.

Carter was the first president to announce that the very foundation of our mechanized and industrialized mobile society was in danger due to declining energy.  His April 18, 1977 speech began with:

“Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly.

It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.

We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren.

We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us”.

William Simon, secretary of the treasury under President Ford, attacked Carters speech by saying that increased demand in the market place has always brought in more supply.

The Wall Street Journal published Gold’s theory and concluded that there might be enough oil for “20 million years at our present rate of fuel consumption”.

Bucknell concludes that economists ignore the fact that oil and gas are finite – they think that all you have to do is dig a hole and pour money into it when you want more.

He doesn’t believe the market can be counted on to solve the energy situation.  Indeed, he sees the unseen hand of the market as being able to “assume terrifying proportions to the individual as it moves in its awesome and uncaring way across a society.  Bankruptcies, breadlines, lost wars, and overthrown governments are often strewn in its wake”.

At the time Bucknell wrote, inflation was high due to energy prices.  He saw the decreasing soundness of the dollar as a danger to the international monetary system and inflation of the dollar possibly bringing on another Great Depression.

War and Terrorism

Bucknell saw foreign policy as critical to how long a democracy could last, and thought our policies on oil were inept – we treated oil like any other mineral.  Yet minerals and raw materials were useless without energy.  That made us vulnerable, because we were importing half our oil from abroad, which put us in the position of having to go to war if there were energy shortages.

He also didn’t think that people understood how critical oil was to fighting a war, and has a chart on page 140 showing what percent of the nations energy the military consumed to fight several wars in the past.  He points out that the amount needed would deprive civilians as much as the Arab oil embargo did, which led to half a million people being unemployed.  At the time he wrote, the military was the largest consumer of energy in the United States, using two percent of the total energy budget (and we weren’t at war with anyone then).

In energy wars of the future, there would be “no choices between guns and butter”.  There’d be a premium on using already existing machinery, since the energy to produce new weaponry would be energy-limited.

In 1973, Congressman Lee Hamilton asked the Congressional Research Service to study seizing foreign oil fields by force.  The study concluded that such an attack would be successful only if all of the following were accomplished: seize oil installations intact, secure them for years, restore the damaged assets quickly, be able to operate oil fields without the assistance of local staff, and be able to guarantee safe passage of supplies and petroleum.

Bucknell wrote that at that time, it appeared the administration was planning to field a military force of 100,000 men in the Middle East to guarantee political stability.  The planners envisioned a “lightning raid on the oil fields followed by forceful adjudication to restore oil flow to the United States on favorable terms.  That this is a naïve oversimplification is one of the messages of this book.  Raids on oil fields cannot be counted upon to result in productive capacity.”

He believed that if we intended to have energy wars, we’d need a strong navy and nuclear arms, but that starting an energy war would be terribly dangerous, and that the “deprivations to be visited upon our population are beyond living experience in this country”.

Because of all of the above, Bucknell said that military planners tended to think in terms of short rather than long wars.   But since we weren’t able to predict the length of the Korean and Viet Nam wars, he wonders why military planners think they can control the length of an energy war.

He believed that war was a foolish and dangerous risk, plus there was the reaction of the Soviet Union to consider.  But if we didn’t rein in our rate of consumption of oil and develop alternatives meanwhile, we were likely to enter a war which our country and armed forces were ill-prepared for.

He pointed out that environmentalists who opposed energy developments at home (i.e. coal to liquids, shale oil, etc), had to consider the consequences – it was more likely there’d be energy wars abroad, requiring much higher defense expenditures, which would take money away from making an energy base transition.

There was also the chance we’d be attacked and need to defend ourselves.  The military runs on petroleum (except for nuclear ships), and we needed to figure out alternatives now, because we wouldn’t be able to invent them while fighting a war.  New resources must be developed in times of peace – “the granaries of a nation are not filled during the years of famine”.

Bucknell predicted the alliances formed after World War II might not survive competition over energy resources and our declining ability to provide protection to our allies.

Within our own country, we’ve very vulnerable to terrorist attacks due to the centralization of power plants and electrical distribution, yet this wasn’t being considered in defense planning.

Externally, our supertankers were vulnerable to sabotage or missile attacks, oil loading ports might be attacked, and there was a large lifeline of oil tankers around the globe to be defended.

Intense competition for oil would also build up among the different regions of the United States, leading to potential problems.  There are regional disparities in energy supply and demand that have received little attention from Washington planners.  “Yet it is of crucial sociopolitical and economic import.  Left unattended, it could throw our Republic back to the pre-Constitutional days of rampant interstate economic (and worse) warfare where “have” states defended their products and “have-not” states sought military redress”.

Agriculture and Energy

Bucknell throws out several statistics to show that while we’ve doubled food production in the three decades after 1940, we more than tripled the energy used in the same time period, which is not the direction we should be going in and is of basic importance in national policy considerations.

Lack of energy will eventually force us back to using human rather than machine labor.  When Bucknell’s book was published, there were 4 million Americans employed on farms that consumed enormous amounts of energy.  Just the nitrogen fertilizer alone consumed sixty eight million barrels of oil every year.  Bucknell states that If the farm economy is de-mechanized, you’d need at least 31 million farm workers and 61 million horses.

The population of the United States has grown by at least 25% since Bucknell published his book.  To de-mechanize now, we’d need 39 million farm workers and 76 million horses.  In 2002, we had 3.6 million horses and mules in America.  The horsepower represented by farm tractors alone (i.e. not grain and bean harvesters, etc), equals 400 million horses.   Horse gestation takes 11 months, the foals are weaned at 4-8 months, and most fillies don’t bear foals until they’re 3-4 years old.  Given how much land horses themselves require to be fed –2 to 28 acres, depending on the quality of forage — the land to feed horses as well as people means there’s an upper limit to how many horses can replace human muscle power.

Bucknell wonders whether our population will accept a large-scale substitution of manual labor for energy use.  He wonders if food production will drop and food prices soar.


We don’t seem to have moved forward much at all since the 70s.  The same debates about which energy alternatives to pursue, or whether there even is an energy crisis are still happening.  And how can the public participate in energy debates when less than 5% of Americans are scientifically literate? The theory of evolution is rejected by 51% of Americans, 34% believe in UFO’s and ghosts, 29% in astrology, and students score near the bottom in math and science internationally.

Although it’s often said that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, I’m not sure that knowing how we failed in the past will prevent failure now, and I’m sure Bucknell would agree.  He doesn’t think that a democracy can cope with huge economic, technological, social, and political problems in a short time frame.

Appendix A   President Carter’s National Energy Plan  

Main Principles:

1)       The energy problem can be effectively addressed only by a government that accepts responsibility for dealing with it comprehensively and by a public that understands the seriousness and is ready to make necessary sacrifices.

2)       Healthy economic growth must continue.

3)       National policies for the protection of the environment must be maintained.

4)       The Unite States must reduce its vulnerability to potentially devastating supply interruptions.

5)       The program must be fair.  The United States must solve its energy problems in a manner that is equitable to all regions, sectors, and income groups.

6)       The growth of energy demand must be restrained through conservation and improved energy efficiency.

7)       Energy prices should generally reflect the true replacement cost of energy.

8)       Both energy producers and energy consumers are entitled to reasonable certainty about government policy.

9)       Resources in plentiful supply must be used more widely and the nation must begin the process of moderating its use of those in short supply.

10)   The use of nonconventional sources of energy—such as solar, wind, biomass, geothermal—must be vigorously expanded.


Carter’s proposed solutions:

1)       Annual limits would be placed on oil imports.  After some discussion this evolved to a figure of 8.2 mbpd for 1979 with the prospect of a cut to 4 to5 mbpd by 1990.

2)       A new cabinet-level energy mobilization board would be established with far-reaching powers to ensure that procedural, legislative, or regulatory actions spurred by environmentalists no longer cause extended delays in the creation or expansion of plants, ports, refineries, pipelines, and so forth

3)       A government-chartered energy security corporation would develop a synthetic fuel industry producing at least 2.5 mbpd of oil substitutes from shale, coal, and biomass.  88 billion dollars was earmarked for this task.

4)       A standby system for rationing gasoline would be prepared.

5)       Each state would be given a target for the reduction of fuel use, including gasoline use, within its borders.  Failure of a state to act would result in federal action.

6)       The ninety-four nuclear power plants now being built or planned would be completed.  Additional nuclear policies would be announced after completion of the Three Mile Island investigation.

7)       Owners of homes and commercial buildings would receive interest subsidies of $2 billion for extra insulation and conversion of oil heating to natural gas.

8)       Utilities would be required to cut their use of oil by half over the next ten years.  Conversion would be partially financed by grants and loan guarantees.

9)       Bus and rail systems would receive $10 billion for improvement, while $6.5 billion would be expended to upgrade the gasoline efficiency of automobiles.

10)   Low-income groups would receive $2.4 billion each year to offset higher energy prices.

11)   The installation of solar energy systems in homes and businesses would be subsidized by loans and tax credits.  A solar bank would be formed.

12)   About $142 billion in federal funds was involved in the Carter Plan over the next decade.  It was envisioned that most of this money would come from an energy security trust fund financed by a tax of about 50 percent on the windfall profits earned by U.S. oil companies as price controls are phased out.  An additional $5 billion would be raised through the sale to the public of bonds in the energy security corporation dedicated to the development of synthetic fuels.

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