The powers that be: 50 years ago, NNY and U.S. struggled with a lack of energy

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Jan. 27—Last year, the United States produced more oil than any country in history. The fact that we're awash in crude trickled down to gas pumps late last year when motorists saw relief as prices fell.

This comes as the current White House administration is driven to reduce the country's reliance on fossil fuels; a presidential political conundrum. Meanwhile, recall those "I (Biden) Did That!" stickers mischievously placed on gas pumps before the price downfall? Evaporated.

Jim Burkhard, vice president and head of research for oil markets, energy and mobility, S&P Global Commodity Insights, told the weekly Oil & Gas Journal a few weeks ago, "Not only is the U.S. producing more oil than any country in history, but the amount of oil (crude oil, refined products, and natural gas liquids) that it is exporting is near the total production of Saudi Arabia or Russia. When you look back on 2008 — when U.S. production was at a 62-year low, and exports were zero — it is a remarkable turnaround."

Compared to 50 years ago, that turnaround is even more amazing when an energy-starved U.S. looked to Arab countries and urgently asked, "Please, may we have some more?"

During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an embargo against the U.S. in retaliation for its decision to re-supply the Israeli military and to gain leverage in the post-war peace negotiations. Arab OPEC members also extended the embargo to other countries that supported Israel including the Netherlands, Portugal and South Africa. Canada was spared.

For a country dependent on foreign oil, the embargo strained the U.S. economy and altered lifestyle, including here in Northern New York — from temperatures in homes to tempers at the gas pumps.

The price of oil per barrel quadrupled, challenging the stability of national economies. The refined product at gas pumps was increasingly savored, occasionally by thieves. For example, on Dec. 28, 1973, crooks hit Chiumento's Arco Station at 1240 Arsenal St., Watertown, becoming the third gas station in seven days in the city to have a large quantity of fuel stolen from its underground tanks. The three thefts totaled 3,008 gallons. In the Arco station theft, city police said a tanker truck driver, overnight, made off with 680 gallons of regular gas, valued at $329 — $2,165 in today's dollars.

Thefts weren't limited to gas stations. In April 1974, the owner of a gravel pit in the town of Watertown hid in his office and armed with a rifle after receiving a tip that a gasoline thief would pay him a visit. With rifle in hand, James Vespa found the 18-year-old suspect at 8 p.m. on April 15 between two vehicles with a 10-gallon gas can and a hose in his possession.

Pain at the pump

In late February 1974, New York, following the lead of other states, began a voluntary "alternate day" gasoline rationing system. Motorists were asked to get gasoline based on the last digit (odd or even) of their license plates. Station owners woke up to try to manage "odd" days and "even" days. Some people, like doctors, were exempt. The state terminated the rationing plan in May 1974.

"Governor (Malcom) Wilson has ordered the effort because of spot shortages in Albany and New York City caused by motorists who feel they must join every queue at fuel stations," the Times reported on Feb. 9, 1974.

In the north country, concerned gas station owners and operators, who faced fuel quotas, formed the Jefferson County Retail Gasoline Dealers Association. Pumps were shut off after a daily quota was reached. The owners and operators sought to put pressure on legislators to put their pressure on oil companies to increase allocations. Gas was allocated to the state by the Federal Energy Office. The FEO became the Department of Energy in 1977 when the U.S. sought to better coordinate federal energy policy and programs, putting such matters under one umbrella.

Gasoline rationing took effect Feb. 26, 1974, when six north country counties were waiting to receive 2,687,000 gallons of "emergency gasoline" from the state.

The overall situation caused those gas station owners to do some cold calculations: "Most Watertown gas stations will divide their monthly allocations by the number of working days in that month," the Times reported on Feb. 12, 1974. "When they sold the daily quota, the gas pumps will be shut down and no more gas will be sold until the next day. This way, the dealers hope to avoid running out of gas at the end of the month."

Gerald P. Tucker, owner of Tucker's Sunoco on Washington Street, said during the early days of the "odd/even" system that it was working "fairly well."

"Only about one in seven cars was buying gas on the wrong day," he told the Times. "I'm not refusing to sell them gas, but I am asking them in a friendly way to cooperate."

No end in sight

On the evening of Nov. 7, 1973, President Richard M. Nixon appeared on TV to address a national audience. "I want to talk to you tonight about a serious national problem, a problem we must all face together in the months and years ahead," he said.

By the end of November, Nixon said, more than 2 million barrels a day of oil the U.S. expected to import would no longer be available.

"We must, therefore, face up to a very stark fact: We are heading toward the most acute shortages of energy since World War II. Our supply of petroleum this winter will be at least 10% short of our anticipated demands, and it could fall short by as much as 17%."

Nixon announced polices to be implemented, among them: — Directing that industries and utilities which use coal be prevented from converting from that source to oil. — Allocating reduced quantities of fuel for aircraft, leading to a cutback of more than 10% of the number of flights and some rescheduling of arrival and departure times. — Reductions of approximately 15% in the supply of heating oil for homes and offices and other establishments. — "To be sure that there is enough oil to go around for the entire winter, all over the country, it will be essential for all of us to live and work in lower temperatures," Nixon said. "We must ask everyone to lower the thermostat in your home by at least 6 degrees, so that we can achieve a national daytime average of 68 degrees. Incidentally, my doctor tells me that in a temperature of 66 to 68 degrees, you are really more healthy than when it is 75 to 78, if that is any comfort."

It was cold comfort, and on Nov. 25, Nixon, in another national address, had to update his Nov. 7 appearance. "The American people, all of you, you have responded to this challenge with that spirit of sacrifice which has made this such a great nation," he said.

For his part, Nixon said that nine days previous, he signed into law the "Alaskan Pipeline Bill." The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act permitted the construction of an oil pipeline that connected the oil-heavy region of Alaska's North Slope to its South Slope at Port Valdez. It resulted in the eventual construction of an 800-mile north to south Trans-Alaskan pipeline, one of the world's largest pipeline systems.

But more needed to be done, the president said. The country would adjust production schedules and divert petroleum, which might normally go for the production of gasoline, to the production of more heating oil.

In the winter of 1972-73, the Times reported that home fuel oil was 19.9 cents a gallon. By October 1974, it was at 32.7 cents a gallon, or about $1.95 in today's dollars. Comparing that to today, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of Jan. 15, the price for residential heating oil in New York state was averaging $4.25 a gallon. In early November 2022, it hit $6 a gallon.

On Thursday, a representative at Giffith Energy, which has a site on Gillette Road, said heating oil in Watertown and elsewhere in our region was going for $4.099 a gallon.

To deal with the petroleum diversion, Nixon asked that all gasoline filling stations voluntarily close down their pumps between 9 p.m. Saturday night and midnight Sunday every weekend, beginning Dec. 1.

"The third step will be the establishment of a maximum speed limit for automobiles of 50 miles per hour nationwide as soon as our emergency energy legislation passes the Congress," Nixon said. "We expect that this measure will produce a savings of 200,000 barrels of gasoline per day."

The speed limit for intercity buses and heavy duty trucks "which operate more efficiently at higher speeds" was set at 55 mph. (Nixon agreed to a national speed limit of 55 mph for all states in 1974. In 1987, Congress passed the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act, which permitted states to raise the legal speed limit on rural interstates to 65 mph.)

Nixon also repeated his home thermostat request of a few weeks earlier: "You should lower the thermostat by 6 degrees below its normal setting so that we can achieve a national day time average of 68 degrees. Those who fail to adopt such a cutback risk running out of fuel before the winter is over."

Outdoor lighting was also targeted, creating a dim Christmas. "As soon as the emergency energy legislation passes the Congress, I shall order the curtailment of ornamental outdoor lighting for homes and the elimination of all commercial lighting except that which identifies places of business," Nixon said.

He concluded, "I ask all of you to join together in moving toward that goal, with the spirit of discipline, self-restraint, and unity which is the cornerstone of our great and good country."

Community Savings Bank in Watertown was one of the businesses that responded positively to Nixon's request to cut down on outdoor lighting. On Nov. 29, 1973, the bank said it would turn off the time and temperature display on its sign from midnight to 4 p.m., turn off portions of office lighting and lower thermostats for heating and hot water.

Self-restraint energized

In late December 1973, New York state ordered electric utilities to reduce their voltage output by 3%. The Public Service Commission said the voltage cut was expected to have "minimal effect" on electricity consumers. "It might take a minute longer to bake something if you are using an electric oven, but that would be about it," a PSC spokesman said.

On Nov. 26, 1973, the Times called around to get a sense of how city residents were dealing with the president's request to lower temperatures in their homes. "Most home thermostats were set at 68 degrees, a usual reduction of 2 to 4 degrees from normal settings a year ago — not the 6 degrees reduction the president called for."

Three dedicated fuel-savers had lowered their thermostats to 65 degrees.

"I'm freezing to death but I'm going to leave it there," Mrs. Bernard Livingston, 1122 Harris Drive, told the Times. Her 65-degree setting was a walloping 10-degree drop that she kept the previous winter.

Others said they would not lower the thermostat setting because they had boarders or sick children.

The Watertown City School District reported in December 1974 that it had achieved significant reductions in energy usage. Donald S. Rickett, assistant superintendent for business, said the district cut its energy use in each of the district's 17 buildings by an average of 21.3% in 1973-74 when compared to the amount used the previous school year. Conservation efforts included reducing heat at all buildings to a maximum of 68 degrees, caulking windows and "ensuring smooth operation of heating plants."

The Times also called around for a sampling of thoughts about the request to close gas stations on Sundays. None of the station owners sampled said they would stay open. "I believe the president. There is a shortage, so we will be closed," said George Schneider, owner of the Arco station at State and William streets. Sales had been down, he said, and it "just isn't worth staying open."

Some stations didn't have a choice. The Jet Gas station on Court Street was closed until Dec. 1 because supplies were used up. The Jet Gas on State Street remained open, but with limited supplies.

On Nov. 17, 1973, the Times reported that gasoline prices continued to rise, with a price of 50 cents at most Watertown Sunoco stations. That would be about $3.30 in today's dollars. "Gas prices will be up to 75 cents a gallon by spring," Gerald Tucker, owner of the Washington Street Sunoco said. He advised that people buy motorcycles.

Nine months later, in August 1974, five months after the oil embargo officially ended, a Times telephone check of 29 gas stations in 14 communities found that with few exceptions, the price of gasoline started at the lower edge of 60 cents and went up to 64.9 cents ($4.29, today's price) per gallon.

In October 1974, gasoline prices recorded a slight decrease in the north country. It sold generally in the mid to upper-50 cent range.

A slower pace

On Nov. 20, 1973, five days before Nixon's updated address on the energy crisis, several states, including New York, modified the speed limit for automobiles; lowering it to 50 mph.

"Traveling along Northern New York highways, particularly Interstate 81, it is evident that a great majority of the motorists is complying with the 50-mph speed limit in the interest of fuel conservation," the Times editorialized. "Occasionally, over the weekend, there was a car whizzing by at a higher rate of speed. These, it was noted were mostly our Canadian friends who, we hope, will soon get the message and play in our backyard according to our rules."

Four days later, the Associated Press reported that General Motors was halting production of large 1974 automobile models by shutting down 15 of its U.S. assembly plants due to a consumer preference for smaller cars.

On Dec. 1, 1973, the Times reported that automobile buyers in Watertown had at least 50 small, high-mileage compacts to choose from in the city. Robert H. Kurtz, president of Kurtz Chevrolet, said the Vega, his most economical model, was selling as fast as he could get them. They had a base price of $2,228 (about $13,000 today) and an EPA-tested milage of 18 to 21.5 miles per gallon.

Miles per gallon data was found everywhere during the crisis. According to the Watertown City Police's monthly report of October 1973, it was noted that patrol cars traveled 26,595 miles for the month, used 3,291 gallons of gas with an average of 8.1 miles per gallon. Meanwhile, Jefferson County sheriff patrol cars averaged 15.1 miles per gallon during the same month.

To beat gasoline rationing, some residents took to hoarding the fuel and storing it.

"People are being a little panicky and are acting unwisely in buying and storing gas and fuel oil," Watertown Fire Chief Selwyn E. Perrigo told the Times.

In December 1973, he penned a letter to the paper outlining the risks of storing excess gasoline in homes. The three main risks: If a container of gasoline is stored in any room of the house, an unrelated fire elsewhere in the home will generate vapor pressure in the container, causing an explosion; a leaking can of gasoline will spread hazardous vapors throughout the house and a person who pours gas from a can with built-up vapors may suffer burns if a chance spark causes a flash-back and explosion in the can.

The chief also reminded people that gas will disintegrate plastic milk containers.

'Is it over?'

In March 1974, the prospect of a negotiated end to hostilities between Israel and Syria was enough to convince the relevant parties to lift the oil embargo.

"Is the gasoline crisis over?" the Times wondered in an April 1974 editorial. "Service stations do not run out of gas at the end of March like they did at the same periods in February and January. There are no lines of cars at the pumps now. Drivers aren't limited to $1, $2 or $3 worth any more." And the editorial pointed out a bonus for drivers: "Have you noticed that with elimination of lines at pumps, the station attendant now has time to check your oil and battery?"

We eventually became more at ease. Meanwhile, a Harris poll released in the summer of 1974 found that Americans were prepared to make energy sacrifices if called for again. "A majority of 67% feel there is a long-term energy shortage in the country," the Chicago Tribune reported.

That autumn, a report issued by the Ford Foundation, the result of a two-year survey, said that the energy crisis (still present at that time) could be beaten by all-out conservation instead of all-out fuel production. But the American Petroleum Institute said reliance on energy conservation would be a reckless gamble.

But renewable energy became a thing to seriously consider. In August 1974, Congress passed the Solar Energy Research, Development and Demonstration Act "to pursue a vigorous and adequately funded program with the objective of utilizing solar energy as a major source for our national energy needs."

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported a few days ago: "Our forecast of crude oil production in the U.S. reaches 13.2 million barrels per day in 2024 and more than 13.4 million in 2025, both of which would be new records,"

On the bright side of renewable energy, EIA also reported, "We expect solar power to be the leading source of growth in electricity generation both in 2024 and 2025" boosting the solar share of total generation to 6% this year and 7% next year.