Manuel on Lifset, 'American Energy Policy in the 1970s'

Robert Lifset, ed.
Jeff Manuel

Robert Lifset, ed. American Energy Policy in the 1970s. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. 332 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8061-4450-4.

Reviewed by Jeff Manuel (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)
Published on H-Energy (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Tammy Nemeth

Some readers will be surprised by the title of this collection given the widely held belief that the United States failed to craft a coherent energy policy during the 1970s. This rich yet eclectic volume demonstrates that the United States did create energy policies—in the plural—in response to the decade’s energy crises, but they were contradictory and beset by half-measures. Some, such as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) and offshore oil drilling, have become cornerstones of America’s twenty-first-century energy landscape. Others, like nuclear power and ethanol subsidies, remain mired in controversy today. And some energy projects conceived in the 1970s, such as beaming solar power from satellites via microwaves, have been relegated to the same historical cul-de-sac as the decade’s polyester apparel.

This collection was born out of a 2007 University of Houston conference organized by eminent energy historians Martin Melosi and Joseph Pratt. The resulting book was edited by Robert Lifset. The collection bridges a gap between veterans of the 1970s energy crises reflecting on those years with the benefit of hindsight, and more recent scholarship, mostly written by historians who came of age after the 1970s who place that era’s events into a broader and deeper historical context. The collection is divided into four parts: political leadership, foreign policy, supply, and demand. Lifset opens with a concise introduction that summarizes each section and highlights key themes connecting the diverse essays: a focus on the unintended consequences of energy policymaking in the 1970s, the need for sustained political commitment to create an energy transition, the growing political power of energy consumers, and a surprising level of consensus about energy policy across party lines during this era.

Part 1 on political leadership includes a chapter by Yanek Mieczkowski assessing President Gerald Ford’s energy policies and a brief chapter by Jay Hakes that corrects several misconceptions about President Jimmy Carter’s handling of the energy issue. Dealing with the price controls imposed by President Richard Nixon at the beginning of the decade was central to energy policymaking for Ford and Carter. Trying to decontrol prices while fighting against populist pressures that favored artificially low prices occupied the Ford and Carter White Houses before President Ronald Reagan finally terminated the price controls in January 1981. Mieczkowski makes the case that President Ford played an important but largely unheralded role in setting the nation’s energy policies even though he was only in office for two and a half years. Ford’s push to begin decontrolling energy prices was central to his energy legacy. Ford started the process that Reagan would finish in 1981. Mieczkowski also highlights the complex political context in which US energy policies were crafted in the second half of the 1970s. President Ford and Congress made decisions about energy in the shadow of Watergate, rising inflation, and the US withdrawal from Vietnam. In his brief chapter on the Carter administration, Hakes argues that there was a great deal of consensus among politicians about how to respond to the energy crisis, for instance, by creating the Department of Energy or funding alternative energy research. This bipartisan consensus was mostly forgotten, though, after Reagan’s conservative counterrevolution. Hakes also corrects misunderstandings of Carter’s approach to energy policy, such as the perception that he was opposed to nuclear energy.

Part 2 turns from domestic politics to the international scene. David Painter argues that oil has been curiously absent from syntheses of global power in the twentieth century and overviews of the Cold War. This chapter offers a good summary of oil geopolitics from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Painter’s chapter explains why the United States looked to Iran to defend its interests in the Gulf and describes the breakdown of this strategy in the 1970s. Painter also reminds readers that tightening world oil supplies were affecting global politics well before the 1973 embargo. Steve Marsh also focuses on the United States’ relationship with Iran, discussing how Iran’s oil weapon shifted from ineffectiveness in the 1950s to a position of strength in 2007. An underlying theme of Marsh’s chapter is the emergence of a multipolar global order in the late twentieth century, the outlines of which became visible in the 1970s. Marsh calls this a “shift in the international system from a bipolar to bipolycentric configuration” (p. 109). His chapter is hampered by an unusual chronology—he begins in the 1950s, jumps to the 2000s, and then returns to the 1970s—and speculation about possible Iranian actions circa 2005 that quickly became obsolete. Taking parts 1 and 2 together, it is clear that energy, especially oil, was central to domestic and international politics in the 1970s. Yet the collection would have benefited from additional connections between the chapters in part 1 on political leadership, which chiefly concerns domestic politics, and those in part 2 that emphasize foreign policy. Energy policy is one issue where international and domestic politics overlap greatly.

Part 3 is the richest and most varied section in the book, as it examines several attempts to increase energy supplies in the wake of the 1970s crises. Tyler Priest, adapting material from his 2007 book on Shell Oil’s offshore operations, argues that offshore oil leasing was one federal energy policy launched in the 1970s that worked well and has continued into the twenty-first century. Rising oil prices after 1973 made expensive offshore ventures less risky and more profitable. In a broader sense, Priest’s chapter emphasizes how high oil prices in the 1970s paid for research and innovation in oil production technology. His chapter is one of the few in the book that connects events in the 1970s with more recent developments, such as the shale revolution, enabled by the past decade’s high oil prices. Like offshore oil production, the US SPR was an energy policy conceived in the 1970s that remains active and popular today. Bruce Beaubouef describes the SPR as “the least contentious” energy policy of the 1970s. As a result, it enjoyed backing from the Ford administration and a Democratic Congress. Later, it maintained support from the Carter and Reagan administrations. Within the overall political economy of the 1970s, Beaubouef argues, the SPR demonstrates “the virtue of passive, supply-side energy policy tools” (p. 176). He sees the SPR as the definitive pro-market energy policy to emerge from the 1970s. It required little of the regulatory baggage that accompanied complicated demand reduction schemes.

The other three chapters in part 3 take on more controversial energy policies. Jason Theriot uses southern Louisiana’s Agrifuels Refining Corporation to understand the nation’s crash program to create alcohol fuels in the 1970s. Alcohol fuels, today known as ethanol, were one of several programs pushed in the 1970s as gasoline supply extenders and tools to promote energy independence. The Agrifuels refinery was launched with much promise in 1980, but declining oil prices and a political shift toward pro-market conservatism killed the project later in the decade. Agrifuels is an interesting example, but the company was based in Louisiana and used sugarcane as a feedstock. It is hardly representative of the midwestern, corn-based ethanol industry that grew in the 1970s and today dominates the American market. Jeff Womack describes an interesting, if far-fetched, path not taken in the decade’s energy plans, collecting solar power via satellites and beaming it back to Earth using microwaves. Although solar power satellites were never launched, Womack convincingly argues that the space-age plan illustrated the political and technical factors needed to make alternative energy technologies successful. Womack relies on the iron triangle theory to explain solar power satellites’ (literal) failure to launch. Despite enthusiasm from NASA, solar power satellites never built a coalition of congressional support and the project went nowhere. In the final chapter of part 3, J. Samuel Walker offers a concise summary of nuclear power in the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s. Walker describes a rising tide of antinuclear activism and economic headwinds in the 1970s that derailed the industry’s earlier promise.

Part 4 contains two interesting chapters but the overall theme of demand is less clear. Turning to the main consumer of petroleum in the 1970s (and today), Brian Black focuses on how the US automobile industry changed in response to the 1970s energy crises. Black emphasizes that the post-1970s growth of light truck and sports utility vehicle sales was driven in part by the American auto industry’s attempt to get around Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. This story is well known, but Black argues that the consumer preferences of American drivers ultimately drove demand for large, heavy cars and their high energy demands. In the final chapter, Lifset discusses the case of Commonwealth Edison’s power generation woes in the 1970s. As a case study, Commonwealth Edison highlights how a growing environmental movement reshaped the energy industry in that decade. Lifset focuses on the technical but important point that environmental advocacy groups gained standing to sue energy companies (and other polluters) in federal courts by the 1970s. This became central to environmental groups’ strategies in later years and caused the energy industry to factor environmental considerations into their plants and their business plans for the first time.

Energy historians and historians of the United States in the 1970s will learn a good deal from this collection. Several of the chapters, notably Painter’s summary of oil geopolitics and Walker’s review of nuclear power, offer highly readable overviews of their topics that would work well in the classroom. Taken overall, the collection is also to be commended for presenting even-handed analysis of the era’s energy crisis despite the decade’s many jeremiads about shortages. By including material on electrical generation and oil the collection reminds readers that the decade’s energy problems were wider than the oil embargo—although a chapter on natural gas policy is sorely needed—and it avoids what Christopher F. Jones recently described as “petromyopia” in energy humanities scholarship.[1]

It seems unfair to critique an edited collection that emerges from a conference for what is not included, but there are several issues missing from the volume that would have added to its value. Most prominently, more discussion is needed about how the energy crisis of the 1970s ended in the 1980s and what effect these years had on energy policies and our historical memory of the 1970s. Lifset and Hakes both raise the intriguing idea that the rejection of most 1970s energy policies by the Reagan administration coupled with the decline of oil prices in the 1980s discredited the policies fashioned by Nixon, Ford, and Carter. Scholars will hopefully take up this question in greater detail. Practically, the volume offers scant discussion of the mechanisms by which energy markets went from shortage and crisis to abundance and falling prices. This is in contrast to the detailed descriptions of how the energy crisis was set in motion prior to 1973. Also, while the collection does an admirable job of covering Ford’s and Carter’s energy policies, it would have been helpful to read about similar decisions within the Nixon White House. Finally, analysis in some of the chapters reflects the energy and foreign policy concerns of 2007, when the conference was held. Like the 1970s, the first decade of the twenty-first century was shaped by rising oil prices, fears of peak oil, and demands for energy security. Apparent parallels between the 1970s and 2007 certainly shaped several chapters in the book. Yet energy policy and the broader landscape of global energy shifted greatly in the seven years between the conference and the book’s publication. The book would have benefited from more analysis of the history behind the energy issues of recent years, such as fracking, declining oil prices, the rise of wind and solar electrical generation, and falling natural gas prices, to name a few.

This is an eclectic collection that will nonetheless be valuable for historians of energy policy and the 1970s. Read holistically, the collection raises the question of how historians should periodize the energy crisis of this era. Is “the seventies” the correct chronological frame for the energy crisis? Certainly the 1973-74 embargo and the broader energy crisis of 1978-79 were turning points in the era’s energy drama. But this collection highlights the underlying changes in consumption and supply that were happening well before 1973 and the messy, complex resolution of the crisis well into the 1980s. As Lifset notes in the introduction, “there remains no single volume history of the energy crisis of the 1970s” (p. 14). This edited collection reminds us of how much we have learned since the 1970s and how much remains to be written.


[1].  Christopher F. Jones, “Petromyopia: Oil and the Energy Humanities,” Humanities 5, no. 2 (June 2016): 36.

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Citation: Jeff Manuel. Review of Lifset, Robert, ed., American Energy Policy in the 1970s. H-Energy, H-Net Reviews. October, 2016.

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