Lecture #21: Energy Crises

Suggested Readings:

Martin Melosi, Coping with Abundance: Energy and Environment in Industrial America (1985)
Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History (2017)
David Nye, Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies (1997)
Gail Cooper, Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960 (1998)
Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command - A Contribution to Anonymous History (1948)
Barbara Freese, Coal: A Human History (2005)
Mason Inman, The Oracle of Oil: A Maverick Geologist's Quest for a Sustainable Future (2016)
Vikram Rao, Shale Gas: The Promise and the Peril (2012)
Tom Wilber, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (2012)
Russell Gold, The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World (2014)
Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (1991, 2008)
Daniel Yergin, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (2011)
Daniel Ford, The Cult of the Atom: The Secret Papers of the Atomic Energy Commission (1982)
G. T. Mazuzan & J. S. Walker, Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation, 1946-1962 (1984)
J. Samuel Walker, Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective (2004)
Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy (2007)
Wendy Williams & Robert Whitcomb, Cape Wind: Money, Celebrity, Class, Politics, and the Battle for Our Energy Future on Nantucket Sound (2007)
Amory Lovins, Soft Energy Paths: Towards a Durable Peace (1977)


I. The Fossil Fuels Era Approaches Its End

Much of U.S. economic and technological growth since 1800 predicated on the availability of (and belief in) cheap energy. As I've said during a couple of earlier lectures in this course, it would have been entirely possible to frame the grand narrative arc of American environmental history in terms of changing energy use. Today, we'll try to see what that arc might have looked like.

One variant on Potter's People of Plenty theme and H. J. Habakkuk's arguments about the American impulse to replace people with "labor-saving" devices (substituting scarce labor costs for cheap resources) was that the overall tendency in the United States was to replace organic energy sources with inorganic ones. You may want to revisit the graphs from that earlier lecture, since they're highly relevant to this lecture on energy as well: http://www.williamcronon.net/courses/460/handouts/460_handout_09_ag_time_series_color_graph.pdf http://www.williamcronon.net/courses/460/handouts/460_handout_09_ag_time_series_bw_graph.pdf

In 1956, the petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert (1903-1989) published a famous paper predicting that the U.S. would reach peak oil production in the lower 48 in 1971. Delivered at a regional meeting of the American Petroleum Institute: http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/1956/1956.pdf

Hubbert was effectively restating the arguments of Thomas Malthus for industrial society: arguing that energy rather than food would limit economic growth.

This was also the moment when energetics was becoming a new analytical and metaphorical foundation for ecosystem analysis too: Raymond Lindemann and G. Evelyn Hutchinson at Yale had studied ecosystem energy flows in the 1940s; Howard and Eugene Odum had analyzed trophic levels of ponds using radioactive isotopes. (It was from this systems ecology perspective on calories and nutrients moving along food chains and up trophic levels that the analytical foundations for subsequent controversies relating to Strontium 90 and DDT would emerge.)

Note the long series of transitions in basic energy sources for the U.S.: from fuelwood to coal to oil, each with virtues and problems. The Wikipedia entry for Energy in the United States provides very useful overview statistics and graphs about these transitions:
A high-quality graph of historic energy use in the U.S. can be found here:

Wood entailed deforestation; was bulky relative to the density of calories that could be produced by burning it; not easy to mechanize; not ideally suited to large-scale industrial processes. Coal caused pollution; posed serious occupational hazards ranging from mining accidents to black lung disease; was dirty to burn; destroyed landscapes; was heavy and inconvenient to transport and use. But both were extremely abundant in the United States, especially during early centuries of the nation's history.

Oil would prove to be the great twentieth-century energy source. The first oil well in U.S. was discovered at Titusville, Pennysylvania, invested in by Edwin L. Drake, who struck oil there on August 27, 1859. Petroleum ("rock oil" or kerosene) soon replaced whale oil for illumination, and eventually diminished classic urban pollution problems of the 19th-century city that we've now almost forgotten: horse manure and coal smoke.

Standard Oil Company of John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) soon established a near monopoly of the American oil industry by cutting secret transport deals with railroad companies and controlling refinery capacity. These eventually made him the wealthiest man in the world, a sign of how important oil was becoming to the economy. Initial center of American oil drilling was in area south of Lake Erie in western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio, with Cleveland playing a lead role.

Western gushers transformed the economies of Texas and California, later Oklahoma: 1/10/1901, Anthony F. Lucas's oil strike at Spindletop sent 100-foot gusher skyward. The Texas Co. ("Texaco") was founded in 1902; Gulf Oil in 1907. Competition with these western fields, which Rockefeller proved unable to control, undermined monopoly of Standard Oil Co. just as the federal government was using the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break up the company in 1911.

Fossil fuels were at the base of virtually every aspect of 20th-century life: not just automobile transport with its attendant smog (first recorded as noticeable new problem in Los Angeles in 1943), but, more subtly, the suburb/skyscraper division of American urban geography: vertical office and commercial space of the downtown (often legacies of the railroad era) with sprawling horizontal residential suburbs, linked by increasingly energy intensive transport systems.

Skyscraper services can serve as a microcosm of the modern city: water, sewage, light, heat, power. All require significant amounts of energy, especially electricity. (I explore these in greater detail in Hist/Geog/ES 469.)

Consider, for instance, air conditioning. In the ninetheenth century, residential cooling was all achieved by making adjustments to natural seasonal shifts: awnings, curtains, porches, trees, "spring cleaning" (after shutting down coal furnace and trying to get rid of accumulated coal dust for the warm months).

Mechanical refrigeration was first invented in 1851, but was only practical in large-scale applications because of its cost, size, and reliance on toxic gases like ammonia. The first room-cooling device was developed by Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1950) in 1902. By the 1920s, air conditioning units were being installed in government buildings and wealthy homes. Massive increase in demand awaited lighter, cheaper devices in the post-WWII period.

By the 1950s, air conditioning was regarded as a key symbol of the new American way of life, a fulfillment of the American dream. It played a non-trivial role in large-scale migration to the Sun Belt, places like Florida, Texas, and the American Southwest where high summer temperatures made AC seem increasingly essential for comfortable living.

One telltale sign of how widespread the use of air conditioning had become was the shift of peak electrical load from midwinter to midsummer, a sign of the new energy economy. Energy consumption was now not just to heat but to cool: control of and separation from nature.

A whole series of consumer applicances, most requiring electricity, were adopted into American households over the course of the twentieth century, initially adopted only by the wealthy, but eventually working their way down the class hierarchy into middle- and working-class homes. Among the most important of these:

  • telephone
  • automobile
  • electric stove
  • radio
  • refrigerator
  • clothes washer
  • clothes dryer
  • dishwasher
  • television (B&W, then color)
  • air conditioner
  • microwave
  • VCR
  • computer
  • Internet
  • cellphone

For a fascinating graph displaying the timing of when these appliances were adopted, see
and for an even more detailed of when various electronic devices were adopted, see:

In agriculture, there was a parallel transition from human and animal power to oil-powered tractors, dramatically increasing the labor efficiency of the food system while just as dramatically decreasing its energy efficiency (cf. the Habakkuk thesis again).

Tractors were only the most visible symbol of growing energy inputs to the whole agricultural system. Consider, for instance, the energy intensity of feedlot beef: from range-fed to grain-fed cattle. Huge world-wide increase in fertilizer production using energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process to convert atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizer with fossil-fuel based energy.

By 1970, 7-8 calories of fossil fuel were being invested to yield 1 calorie of heat-dried corn.

Influential article by UW-Madison's John S. Steinhart & Carol E. Steinhart on this topic: “Energy Use in the U.S. Food System,” Science, April 19, 1974.

Net result was an impressive correlation of GNP per capita with energy per capita: as Potter and Habakkuk might have argued, the high U.S. standard of living was based on high consumption of calories, especially oil. By 1970, the average American used 3 times more energy than grandparent.

One powerful symbol of this change: the nighttime surface of the planet seen from space:

II. Crisis

Amid all this dramatic change, some troubling signs of possible vulnerabilities:

  • 1947, US becomes net importer of oil;
  • imports rise as % of U.S. production from 3% in 1940, 9% in 1950, 14% in 1960;
  • 1956, first decline in new U.S. drilling;
  • 1968, more natural gas consumed than found;
  • 1971, U.S. no longer world's largest producer of oil

1960: Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC, formed: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia. Its members controlled 75% of world oil reserves by 1970.

1973 Yom Kippur War: Saudi Arabia demanded price rise from $3-$6/bbl. Arab nations boycotted U.S. oil shipments in response to U.S. airlifts of aid to Israel. U.S. price oil rose by 130% to $11.65/bbl by year's end. (bbl is an abbreviation for barrel, which for petroleum holds a standard volume of 42 U.S. gallons)

Prices stablized at these new higher levels until 1978, when the Shah of Iran fell. Iranian exports dropped and prices rose once again to as high as $45/bbl on the spot market by end of 1979 -- in stark contrast to average prices of $3/bbl at beginning of decade.

For further details, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1970s_energy_crisis

The domestic effects of these unfamiliar scarcities were massive price increases for gasoline and heating oil, etc., with shortages and long lines at gas stations, rising expenses for heating and cooling homes, and so on. These helped fuel the severe economic inflation that characterized much of the 1970s (but don't forget the economic impacts of the Vietnam War and Great Society spending deficits, which also played important roles in contributing to this inflation.)

President Jimmy Carter's described energy conservation as the Moral Equivalent of War (a phrase he borrowed from the philosopher William James). The decade saw growing public fear of foreign oil power and intense resentment of oil companies' increased profits (2.6% per year 1956-72, 20.8% per year 1973-80), with widespread anxiety that the U.S. was no longer in control of own destiny.

But note also the explosion of growth in oil states like Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Alaska, followed by economic decline when OPEC lost control of world oil prices in 1982. Texas lost a million oil jobs in 1982. The savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s was partly triggered by this collapse.

Oil inflation as a political economic crisis was made possible by an underlying shift from abundance toward scarcity in U.S. domestic oil reserves.

Oil crisis prompted large-scale rethinking of national and world-wide energy systems, encouraging conservation (insulated houses, smaller cars) as well as search for sources of supply (domestic oil, shale oil, coal).

But energy conservation could conflict with pollution control and other environmental concerns: shift back toward coal consumption away from oil also a shift toward greater pollution; automobile emission controls often decreased engine's energy efficiency and hence fuel costs.

Alaska Pipeline controversy made this point clearly: Arco discovered 10 billion bbls oil reserve at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope of Alaska in 1968, and a pipeline to transport this oil as it came online was proposed in 1969. The pipeline was then opposed by the Wilderness Society, Environmental Defense Fund, and other groups, which demanded that an environmental impact statement be made about the effects of its construction and operation on arctic tundra ecosystem. With the pressure of the oil crisis, Congress approved the pipeline 1973.

If pollution control and back to nature were environmental themes of the late 1960s and Earth Day in 1970, cost-benefit analysis, trade-offs, and "tragic choices" became growing themes of the 1970s and 1980s.

III. The Nuclear Alternative

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), then later the renamed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had promoted nuclear power as "Atoms for Peace" in the 1950s: reactors could produce electricity "too cheap to meter" with no serious environmental or health hazards.

Public anxiety persisted about nuclear power persisted, in part because of fears generated by nuclear weapons: fears of the bomb, fallout, nuclear proliferation, accidents, radioactive wastes, etc.

1957 Price-Anderson Act set a ceiling on utilities' financial liability for reactor accidents, which had the unintended consequence of emphasizing just how serious such accidents might possibly be.

The early 1970s saw increasing hostility to nuclear power, with large public protests focused on trying to stop construction of particular plants (e.g., Seabrook in New Hampshire, Diablo Canyon in California); or stopping the transport or storage of reactor wastes (Jerusalem, New York).

The 1970s also increasing use of the courts and administrative regulatory hearings to throw up obstacles to construction, with experts on both sides testifying about the safety or risks of reactor design. The result, paradoxically, was a growing reliance on the knowledge of professional experts coupled with growing suspicion of expert authority as experts were increasingly seen as far from disinterested in their advocacy. Was there no objective knowledge about such matters?

Nuclear industry fought back with arguments that nuclear power was cleaner and safer, and far less polluting, than fossil fuel combustion. (Climate change was not yet an argument in the 1970s.)

On March 28, 1979, Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor (south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) experienced a loss-of-coolant accident and a partial meltdown of the reactor core through series of human errors, resulting in small radiation releases: an invisible but terrifying accident that provoke widespread public fear. (Release of Hollywood film The China Syndrome just 12 days before the accident amplified these fears.) "TMI," as it came to be called, became a symbol of the untrustworthiness of nuclear technology, leading many Americans to conclude that they had no interest in living anywhere near a nuclear reactor.

The Chernobyl accident in Ukraine on 4/26/1986 led to much more widespread and serious release of large quantities of radiation, with widespread fallout in parts of Europe, $200 billion property damage, 56 direct deaths, estimated 4000 extra cancers in exposed primary population of 600,000 people. (Russian reactor designed relied on flammable graphite to regulate nuclear reactions, unlike the water-based reactors built in the U.S.)

Chernobyl was the worst nuclear accident until March 11, 2011, when an earthquake and tsunami led to meltdowns of 3 reactors at Fukushima in Japan.

In 1980, a year after Three Mile Island, polls showed that a large percentage of the American public was hostile to new reactor construction. Environmentalist interventions in regulatory processes delayed the construction of new plants. Construction costs rose dramatically, with the result that new reactor orders ended and construction of some plants halted.

As we'll see in final lectures, a growing concern about global climate change would revive interest in nuclear power in 21st century, but it remains controversial given this long history.

IV. Soft Energy Paths

In face of energy crises and concerns about nuclear power, there was a growing popularity in the 1970s for so-called "alternative" energies, especially solar and wind power.

Amory Lovins' Soft Energy Paths (1977) argued for distinguishing between "hard" energy (high tech/high capital/environmentally damaging: e.g., nuclear) and "soft" energy (low tech/low capital/environmentally safe: e.g., solar) technology. Lovins was a kind of technocratic counterpart to the arguments E. F. Schumacher had made in his 1973 book Small is Beautiful.

Lovins' arguments were reinforced, surprisingly, by a report released by the Harvard Business School in 1979 with the title Energy Futures. It argued that problems associated with the oil crisis would continue, that nuclear power had been undermined by regulatory failure, so that conservation and solar energy were the best immediate alternatives for the near future.

Such arguments seemed to suggest that tragic choices could be evaded: but on what time scale?

Note too the utopian impulse that sometimes seems to be represented in alternative versions of energy futures: Berkeley's Farralones Institute's Integral Urban House and Cape Cod's New Alchemy Institute as experimental solar communes. Solar and soft energy served as symbols not just of low-tech solutions to material problems with energy, but choices driven by fundamentally different values.

As we'll see in an upcoming lecture, the rejoinder was to ask whether the modern economy whose characteristics we've been studying could be supplied by these kinds of energy sources.

Coal vs nuclear vs hydropower vs solar vs wind: which path to a "sustainable" future? (That word "sustainable" would emerge in the 1980s as a label for these debates about the future.)