Fossil Fuels and Energy Independence

By Tanenbaum, B. Samuel | The World and I, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Fossil Fuels and Energy Independence


Tanenbaum, B. Samuel, The World and I


To become self-sufficient in energy resources, the United States needs to combine the conservation strategies learned over the past 30 years with the latest fuel-saving technologies.

Following the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, petroleum- producing Arab nations cut back oil production and imposed an embargo that led to an energy crisis in the United States. In response, President Nixon directed Dixy Lee Ray, then-chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, to "undertake an immediate review of federal and private energy research and development activities" and asked her to submit a national energy plan by December 1 of that year.

Based on the input of hundreds of individuals in workshops, review panels, and government agencies, Ray prepared a comprehensive program, "The Nation's Energy Future." She noted that it was intended to "mobilize the nation's resources toward the attainment of a capacity for energy self-sufficiency by 1980." To achieve that goal, the report recommended five tasks: (1) conserve energy by reducing consumption and adopting processes that use fuel more efficiently; (2) raise domestic production of oil and natural gas; (3) increase the use of coal; (4) greatly expand the use of nuclear power; and (5) promote the use of renewable energy sources.

These recommendations look remarkably similar to suggestions being made by the Bush administration today. Thus it should be useful to review what happened in the 1970s that prevented the country from achieving independence in energy resources and to examine what steps may be taken at this time.

Historic patterns of energy consumption

In 1972, energy consumption in the United States totaled 72 quadrillion Btu (72 followed by 15 zeros)--or, more simply, 72 Quads. [One Btu (British thermal unit) is the energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.] Of this amount, 45.5 percent was derived from oil, 32.3 percent from natural gas, 17.2 percent from coal, and the remainder from nuclear reactors and renewable sources. In other words, fossil fuels--oil, natural gas, and coal--supplied 95 percent of this nation's energy needs.

At that time, the United States produced all the coal and natural gas it consumed, and it even exported a substantial amount of coal to other countries. The major problem then (as now) was that the country relied heavily on imported oil to supplement domestic production. Oil imports had been growing rapidly, and during the first half of 1973, the import rate exceeded 6 million barrels per day (MBPD), representing about one- third of the nation's oil consumption. [Note that 1 MBPD of oil yields 2.1 Quads of energy per year.]

The 1973 report to the president projected that if no action were taken, the demand for energy would continue to rise at its historic rate, reaching about 100 Quads in 1980 and 200 Quads in 2000. At the same time, oil imports were predicted to grow from 6.5 MBPD in 1970 to about 12 MBPD in 1980 and 24 MBPD in 2000.

To achieve energy self-sufficiency, this country had to eliminate the demand for imported oil. To do so by 1980, Ray's plan laid out three proposals. First, 4.7 MBPD could be saved through conservation measures--such as extra insulation in buildings, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, and more efficient industrial processes. Second, 1.5 MBPD of oil would be replaced with energy from coal, nuclear, and renewable sources. Third, domestic oil production would need to be raised by 5.8 MBPD.

The report further noted that "self-sufficiency based on fossil fuels can only be temporary. Though large, these resources are finite." For energy independence over the long term, it recommended incentives for the development of renewable energy sources, but the major replacement of fossil fuels was expected to come from rapid growth in nuclear power.

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