I invited Professor Meg Jacobs of Princeton University to respond to the commissioned review of her book Panic at the Pump by Dr. Ty Priest. Prof Jacobs was kind enough to write a lively reply that raises some important questions about our understanding of the 1970s and energy, and the concept of historical interpretation. The previous posted response was by Prof. Jacobs, but lacked this introduction and clear indication of Prof. Jacobs' authorship. This post is to correct the missing information. I apologize for any inconvenience or confusion.
Tammy Nemeth, Book Review Editor, H-Energy
Meg Jacobs, Author response
In 1977, a reporter remarked the 95th Congress had only two agendas: energy and everything else. Indeed, starting with the Arab embargo in October 1973, and lasting through the election of 1980, few issues preoccupied American policymakers as much as the energy crisis. The twin oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 rocked the economy, punctured the American sense of invincibility, and captured a fundamental debate over how interventionist the federal government should be in preserving a life of comfort and convenience—one predicated on cheap and abundant energy—that postwar Americans had come to expect. When Republican Ronald Reagan came into office in 1981, his first official executive action was to get rid of the price controls and allocation measures put in place by liberal Democrats, along with many of their moderate Republican counterparts, whose constituents insisted that the Nixon, Ford, and Carter White House do something to ease the pain of shortages and higher prices at the pump brought on by unrest in the Middle East. Tired of government falling short of its promises to offer pocketbook protection, Americans now looked to the market (and ultimately to the military) to provide the energy their consumer lifestyles required.
The history of the 1970s energy crisis not only reflects the major tensions in American politics as the polity moved away from the New Deal order and toward deregulation, but, as it turns out, the energy crisis was at the center of this fundamental shift. Panic at the Pump is the first book to take this crisis seriously as a causative event in American political history, moving energy history from the sidelines to the main event. There have been scholarly works about aspects of the modern energy industry, including Tyler Priest’s work on offshore drilling, and this is a booming field. The challenge is to connect these industry histories to the larger contours of the American past as some of the best work by scholars such as Andrew Needham, Thomas Andrews, Brian Black, Peter Shulman, and Christopher Jones does. If we want to understand the politics of the 1970s, defined, as I see it, by a declining faith in American government, we must include the energy crisis in our analysis.
Conversely, I would argue that if we want to understand the fundamental shift in global energy in the 1970s, when the United States and the major American oil corporations lost much of their previous ability to influence markets to OPEC, we need to understand American politics.
Tyler Priest has a different perspective and he brings that vision of how to write energy history to his review of Panic at the Pump. Interested in how the industry itself responded to the oil shocks of the 1970s, he came to Panic with a set of preconceived questions in mind and then, not surprisingly, came away disappointed. The reason, I would argue, is not a failing on my part. In fact, most of the specifics he claims I don't discuss, from the Trans Alaska Pipeline to the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act, and even down to the problems with using 1972 usage as a baseline for those allocations, I actually put at the center. Oddly, Priest is at once critical of the book for being a history of price controls and yet also suggests I don’t give them serious treatment. Priest is right that I don't spend a lot of time on policies that did not fully take hold on the national level like utility reform and cogeneration. Nor do I do a deep dive into the nuclear power industry, which by the time of the first oil shock was already slowing down given the enormous capital costs in an increasingly regulated and inflationary era.
Fundamentally, Professor Priest would have liked me to have written a different book, an insiders’ account of how the oil executives reacted to the oil shocks of the 1970s. I have read the Oil and Gas Journal in its entirety for the 1970s, and there is much interesting work to be done there. But the larger point in understanding the 1970s is that this is an era when the oil executives were not in the drivers’ seat. Had they been, the period would have looked different. As Priest mentions in his review, a detail he gets from my book, in January 1974, Senator Scoop Jackson held televised hearings in which he accused the executives of charging obscene profits. With proposals for breaking up the industry receiving real backing, they were certain their best days were behind them. After the hearings, Gulf president Z. D. Bonner said, “They made me feel I was at a criminal trial.” If I tell a story less about interest group politics and more about ideological and partisan battles, that's because I am remaining faithful to the historical record.
And this is not just quibbling. If I were, then I could point out that the Nixon tapes Priest is calling for simply don't exist. By the time of the Arab embargo, the Watergate investigation was in full force and Nixon was obviously no longer making the recordings that would ultimately lead him to resign. Even if they did, it seems like Priest would discount this source just as he is dismissive of relying on presidential archives and politicians’ statements. For a political history, it would certainly be odd not to consult these sources. Presidential archives are the central repositories of the records we have of each modern administration, and the statements that politicians make in public matter very much. Priest wishes I had consulted federal agency records, but as he surely knows, there was no Department of Energy before its creation in 1977. I could point out that I did consult many federal agency records including the papers of the first energy czar William Simon and the records of the Federal Energy Office, which preceded the Department.
I am telling the history of the energy crisis as a political story because that is what it was. This is the moment when politics prevailed over markets; an assessment with which industry executives themselves, along with every leading economist and politician, would agree. There were fierce disagreements over whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. But there is no denying that the government was heavily involved in every detail of the industry. Much to his chagrin, William Simon, the conservative energy czar, had to decide whether the Daytona 500 went on as planned. In the end it was the 450. The point of the book is to figure out why there was so much pressure on government to intervene—especially when the prevailing literature suggests that the 1970s was already an era of deregulation—and what the consequences were not only for industry but also for American politics.
For energy history to matter, I would argue, and perhaps Professor Priest and I have an intellectual disagreement over this, it must be connected to the larger narrative of American history. Otherwise, it remains marginal and we can draw no lessons for today. Based on my own intellectual and professional experiences, I can say that the best scientists and engineers deeply appreciate the role of politics in shaping technological and industrial progress. We would do well as historians to open ourselves to collaborative work across sub-disciplines rather than rigidly policing artificial boundaries. That is when we can ask the most interesting questions.
Far from the definitive account of all aspects of the energy industry in the 1970s—that was never the ambition—Panic raises some central considerations for future historians. Some of the topics for further investigation include the failure of the energy crisis to transform American energy habits, the insufficient development of renewables in this period, and the shortfall of international collaboration in this era to reform energy usage. Public opinion polls ranked the energy crisis as a bigger problem than Watergate, and yet failed to lead Americans on a new path. Part of the problem was that the public also believed that the crisis was a hoax, an artificial conspiracy foisted on them Big Oil. While we need more industry studies of the period, we also need more cultural, local histories to capture fully how Americans experienced this crisis and how it undermined confidence in their leaders. We also need careful environmental histories to better appreciate how the crisis slowed the momentum of the early 1970s as politicians and ordinary citizens believed there was a tradeoff between economic growth—premised on cheap, fossil fuels—and environmental protection. Finally, we need additional inquires into how the energy crisis began a transformation in American foreign policy. Panic begins with a young George H W Bush heading out to West Texas in 1948 in search of oil and the American Dream and it ends with him in the White House ordering troops into the Gulf in 1991 to protect the free flow of oil. Panic is the first attempt to bring these strands of political history, environmentalism, and foreign policy into one narrative account of the energy crisis and show how this crisis transformed all three. No doubt future historians will pick up these strands and offer textured accounts of this significant event in our past, one that has such important resonances for today.
I welcome the opportunity to continue the discussion of Meg Jacobs’s Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s. Despite our differences on the subject, I am grateful to Professor Jacobs for initiating a conversation about the political dimensions of the 1970s energy crisis.
I agree with Professor Jacobs that political historians have devoted inadequate attention to oil and energy. Panic at the Pump, however, is not “the first book to take this crisis seriously as a causative event in American political history, moving energy history from the sidelines to the main event.” Beyond detailing the ideological posturing over price controls and allocations, it adds little to what numerous scholars, such as Crauford Goodwin, Richard Vietor, David Nye, Richard Hirsh, Peter Grossman, and Jay Hakes, or even many American history textbooks, have written about energy and politics in the 1970s.
To explain how the energy crisis transformed politics requires taking the full measure of energy developments during the decade, not just one aspect. I do criticize Panic both for focusing on the discourse over prices controls and allocations and for not fully analyzing such policies. Contrary to Jacobs’s claim, the book does not discuss the problems created by using a 1972 baseline for allocations. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAP), which she says is “at the center’ of her study, is mentioned only in passing on four discrete pages, even though it was the subject of high political drama. In August 1973, a Senate amendment declaring that TAP met all NEPA requirements and approving the pipeline right-of-way passed only after a tie-breaking vote by the then-embattled Vice President Spiro Agnew. After the embargo took effect, Congress rushed through legislation that authorized TAP and exempted it from further judicial review. Panic at the Pump does not recount these political developments.
Jacobs’s explanations for why she did not address other energy issues are unconvincing. Nuclear power was not “already slowing down” by the first oil shock. On the contrary, nuclear power plant construction was booming in the early 1970s. Nuclear power was a centerpiece of Nixon’s Project Independence, announced in November 1973, and its momentum sagged only with rising inflation and the increased cost of borrowing that followed the 1973 price shock. I am puzzled by Jacobs’s reply that debates over utility reform under PURPA, involving legal challenges that went all the way to the Supreme Court, twice, “did not fully take hold on the national level.” Her reply also does not justify why she omitted the subject of offshore oil, which preoccupied all three federal branches of government during the 1970s and 1980s.
I did not expect Professor Jacobs to write an “insiders’ account of how the oil executives reacted to the oil shocks of the 1970s.” I do wish she had broadened her conception of “politics” to include those people as political actors. She is correct that oilmen were put on the defensive in this period, but they played key roles nonetheless. In November 1973, just after the Arab oil embargo, Gulf Oil and two of its top executives pleaded guilty to making illegal political contributions to Nixon’s Committee to Reelect the President, as well as to powerful House Ways and Means Chairman, Wilbur Mills, and Senator Scoop Jackson, a major character in Jacobs’s book. This was another reason behind Jackson’s desperate attempt to distance himself from the industry by excoriating the leaders of the seven major oil companies in television hearings he staged two months later (a detail I know not from Jacobs, but from my 2007 book). No wonder Gulf president Z.D. Bonner felt like he “was at a criminal trial” during the hearings.
Including such stories in her book would have helped Jacobs demonstrate the growing public distrust of the oil industry. “With proposals for breaking up the industry receiving real backing,” Jacobs writes in her response, oil executives “were certain their best days were behind them.” This is true, but it is also worth mentioning that Congress considered not only breaking up the major oil companies, but also forcing them out of other energy industries and creating a competing federal government-owned oil company. The hearings of Senator Frank Church’s multinational subcommittee in 1974 and 1975, starring a parade of witnesses who detailed the close historical relationship between the U.S. government and major oil companies overseas, fueled outrage that contributed to such extraordinary deliberations on “divestiture.” Panic does not analyze those proposals and hearings.
Perhaps even more surprising than Jacobs’s inattention to industry actors is her neglect of key government records – a criticism that her response does not dispel. In their post to this thread, Anand Toprani and Richard Moss helpfully point to the numerous conversations captured on the Nixon White House tapes about energy affairs between 1971 and 1973 that would have benefited Panic’s chapter on the pre-embargo period. Jacobs defends her minimal research in federal agency records by noting “there was no Energy Department before its creation in 1977.” That department and its predecessor, the Federal Energy Office, however, were not the only ones that formulated energy policy. The Department of the Interior, the Department of State, and the Environmental Protection Agency were more important with regard to oil, but Jacobs did not examine their archival collections.
We do need to look at politics in order to connect energy history to the “larger narrative of American history.” My problem is with Jacobs’s restricted definition of “politics.” She writes in her reply that the energy crisis of the 1970s was “the moment when politics prevailed over markets.” All markets, though, especially those in U.S. oil and gas, are political creations. Politics did not suddenly intervene in energy markets during the 1970s. The political story Jacobs does tell, moreover, is a conventional and familiar one about how high energy prices and the failure of price controls helped drive voters away from New Deal “liberals” toward anti-regulatory “conservatives.” A historical reassessment of this period demands a more thorough understanding of how energy and politics shaped each other.
Such an understanding might question Jacobs’s contention that the larger U.S. political response to the energy crisis “failed.” One can reach this conclusion only if the standard of success was the achievement of national energy “independence” or a radical shift away from oil consumption. Politicians repeatedly pronounced these as national objectives, but few officials believed them to be achievable in the short term. Nevertheless, important steps were taken toward these goals. Today, Americans consume about the same amount of oil as they did in 1979, despite a population and real economy that have doubled in size, and they enjoy greater energy security than they did in the 1970s. This is what Jay Hakes calls the “forgotten victory” that emerged out of the chaos of the 1970s. Illuminating the complex reasons for how that happened, despite Americans’ reduced faith in both government and Big Oil, requires looking closely at both energy and politics in the larger narrative of American history.
Associate Professor of History and Geography
University of Iowa
 According to J. Samuel Walker, “Utilities bought twenty-three power stations in 1971, thirty-nine in 1972, and a record forty-four in 1973.” Walker, “The Nuclear Power Debate in the 1970s, in Robert Lifset, ed., American Energy Policy in the 1970s (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), 226.
 See the Report of the Special Review Committee commissioned by Gulf Oil’s Board of Directors detailing years of bribery and illegal political activities of the company: John J. McCloy, Nathan W. Pearson, and Beverley Matthews, The Great Oil Spill, The Insight Report: Gulf Oil’s Bribery and Political Chicanery (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1976).
 Politics had long structured the oil industry in the United States, from the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911, to the depletion allowance and transportation subsidies of the 1920s, to market-demand prorationing enforced in the 1930s, to the government sanctioning of overseas consortiums in the 1940s, to the imposition of import quotas at the end of the 1950s.
 See, especially, Jacobs, Panic at the Pump, p. 312.
 Jay Hakes, A Declaration of Energy Independence: How Freedom from Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy, and the Environment (New York: Wiley, 2008), pp. 41-70.