Four years ago, the price for a barrel of crude oil was in the $24 range. Now it is pushing well past $60. I’ve been wondering if it could hit 70 bucks before this column made it to press. Everywhere I went last week, people were talking about the recent hikes in gasoline prices.
These conversations carried me back to 1973 and the oil embargo that we experienced. My personal experience created a paradigm shift in my thinking about energy and our natural resources. Prior to 1973, I had owned a series of used, manual transmission, six-cylinder, non-air-conditioned cars while in college and in my early teaching career. I did not own them because they got good gas mileage, but because they were cheap.
In 1973, I treated myself to a new Mercury sedan. It had a 400-cubic-inch V-8 engine, four-barrel carburetor, automatic transmission and an air-conditioner. It got eight to 10 miles per gallon in town and 10 to 12 on the highway.
A few months after my purchase, the oil embargo was imposed. Gas prices rapidly increased and the availability of gas was limited. In some areas of the country, gas was sold to persons on alternating days. You could only buy gas on your assigned day. Many gas stations closed on the weekends. It was not uncommon to see “out of gas” signs posted at service stations.
The worst thing was the limited range that I could drive on a tank of gas. This meant that I could not visit my mother on weekends, because she lived 350 miles away. I was unable to sell the car because no one wanted a “gas hog,” and I was upside down on my car loan.
The experience taught me several valuable lessons. Today, my cars and truck have only four cylinders, I recycle, turn thermostats up and down and turn out lights.
Changing behavior, but…
An old fishing buddy, who had little formal education, told me not to worry about the gas shortage back then. He said that when OPEC and the oil companies got the oil and gas prices they wanted that plenty of oil and gas would be available. He proved to be right.
For more than 30 years we have not experienced a shortage of gas and oil. Maybe there is enough to last another 30 years. However, there are some concerns about China and other emerging economies that also have an increasing appetite for the world’s oil and gas production.
Following the 1973 oil embargo, we became more energy conscious. Automobiles and appliances became more efficient. With available oil and gas, we quickly adjusted to the increased prices and abandoned our quest for energy independence.
Best of the old and new
On a recent trip to Spain, I was impressed with its ancient structures and history: the Roman-built aqueducts, the 15th century bath houses built by the Moors, the Alhambra, architecture, museums and castles. Madrid was as cosmopolitan as Manhattan and still retained an Old World feel.
Spain has the third-leading economy in the European Union and appeared to be booming. However, the thing that impressed me most was the frugality of the Spanish people and their conservation of natural resources. The hall lights in hotels were controlled by sensors and were on only when someone was in the hallway. A system was in place that turned off the utilities in your hotel room when you exited the room. Timers on light switches were prevalent everywhere. Your stay in a public rest room ended in darkness if you tarried too long. Small shop owners would follow you from room to room turning lights on and off as you entered and left the room.
Recycling was evident everywhere. Containers were designed to be easily crushed and stored for recycling. Cars and trucks were small and energy efficient. The three-cylinder Volkswagen Polo that we rented was very comfortable for two people, handled great, would run at speeds of 120 kph and got excellent gas mileage. In the mountain ranges, electricity generating windmills dot the country side.
Drowning in foreign oil
Experts differ on how long the finite oil and gas reserves will last. Maybe 30 years, maybe more, maybe less. The experts also say that it will take us at least a couple of decades or more to develop alternative energy sources and become energy independent.
Our economy is very tied to oil and gas prices. Everything from food to housing is affected by energy cost. Even our foreign policies are driven by our thirst for energy. It may be time to allow energy cost to rise to the level of those in other parts of the world.
Extra profits and taxes need to be diverted to the development of alternative energy sources and to providing tax incentives designed to encourage conservation of our resources. It is past time to develop a real national energy policy. We owe it to our grandchildren.
Archie King, LPC, is a human resources consultant who lives in Madison. His column appears from time to time in the Mississippi Business Journal. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.