In 2005, an unlikely group began advocating for more people to drive Priuses, a car then associated with leftists, treehuggers, and Larry David. The group was called Set America Free and consisted largely of conservatives and foreign policy hawks, although one of its cofounders, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, called it “a coalition of tree huggers, do-gooders, sodbusters, cheap hawks, and evangelicals.” A sympathetic column by conservative foreign policy columnist Max Boot said the group “advocate[s] using existing technologies—not pie-in-the-sky ideas like hydrogen fuel cells—to wean the auto industry from its reliance on petroleum.” An example he provided of an “existing technology” offering a realistic solution was ethanol gasoline providing 500-mile-per-gallon efficiency (yes, that’s two zeroes).
It was a nice idea, but it didn’t work. Hybrids, despite being affordable and widely available, still account for a rounding error of U.S. vehicle sales. Set America Free’s other initiatives around “alternative fuels” like ethanol and methanol were more successful at penetrating the market but had no appreciable impact on reducing the U.S.’s oil dependency or drastic fuel efficiencies. In the end, it was just another effort to shift America’s oil and gas dependency, not end it. So, when gas prices went down and the giant pickup truck became a symbol of American conservatism, it failed.
What makes Set America Free’s efforts worth remembering is that there was little remarkable about it. It was part of a time-tested American cycle triggered by the big numbers posted outside gas stations. When those numbers stay the same or get smaller, people generally feel good about things, even though gas prices are a relatively small proportion—about 3 percent on average—of any individual’s spending or the economy as a whole.
But when those numbers get larger, Americans get upset, even angry, and potentially violent, because it affects their lives in obvious, tangible, and unavoidable ways that we are all powerless to influence or control. People almost invariably blame the president despite him having little control over gas prices. And, for a brief time, people are generally more willing to find ways that lessen the burden of gas prices on ordinary Americans to simply go about their daily lives, because for a brief time we recognize it actually profoundly sucks to be so reliant on gas.
We are, of course, living through one of those periods now. Gas prices are soaring due to the sanctions from the Russian-Ukrainian war and the lingering effects of the pandemic. People want to know what Biden can do, what politicians in general can do, or what we personally can do. But with Biden announcing a ban on Russian oil imports, which will have ramifications across the global marketplace, the president warned Americans things are probably going to get worse as part of the nation’s efforts to punish Russia for invading Ukraine. “I said I would level with the American people from the beginning, and when I first spoke to this, I said defending freedom is going to cost us as well in the United States.”
The Biden administration is also reportedly exploring other measures like ramping up electric heat pump production and a gas tax holiday. But if history is any guide, that willingness to explore other options doesn’t last long, certainly not long enough to create meaningful change. It is, without fail in American history, a desperate scramble for short-term fixes that leaves us right back where we started when the next oil crisis hits. As a result, we're little better off as a country for it.
The simple fact is that the best time to come up with long-term solutions for our overreliance on gas is when gas prices are low, not when we're in the middle of a crisis. And history has shown us that the scramble to solve problems only lasts as long as gas prices are high. When they inevitably drop again, we go back to buying SUVs and pickup trucks.
The first time this happened was in October 1973. At the time, the U.S.’s easy postwar prosperity was starting to unravel, Vietnam and civil rights issues had irreparably torn the country apart, and the Watergate scandal was in full swing (the infamous Saturday Night Massacre where Nixon fired the special prosecutor Archibald Cox took place that month). All of that national anxiety was heightened by the consequences of the Yom Kippur War and ensuing OPEC boycott of the U.S. and other nations that supported Israel. The boycott resulted in a temporary but severe gas shortage in the U.S., the first since World War II rationing and the massive shift to suburban living, leaving Americans far more vulnerable to gas price surges.
For the first time, long lines appeared at gas stations. Angry motorists got into verbal fights with attendants and each other. Many stations closed entirely because the government controlled gasoline prices at the time and the owners felt they could no longer make money selling it. One woman, Rhonda Rubin, told the New York Times that if someone offered to buy her car, she would sell it out of frustration.
In November, Nixon announced measures that if declared by a president today would likely result in impeachment proceedings: a national speed limit of 50mph, no gasoline sales on Sundays, and a total ban on outdoor Christmas lights.
The embargo lasted until March 1974, but the scars from the first crisis lasted even longer. One of the main takeaways from the 1973 oil crisis was the U.S. needed to produce more of its own oil and rely less on foreign sources—yet another evergreen talking point during gas crises—and it invested heavily to that effect, which included stepping up efforts to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
But none of the initiatives altered the fundamental dynamic that Americans rely on cheap, available oil and gasoline, much of which comes from foreign producers. And the U.S. spent none of the subsequent years creating genuine alternatives for people to get around without buying gasoline, such as by investing heavily in public transit. And since American cities were simultaneously embroiled in their own fiscal crises, there was little appeal to most people in moving back to walkable, dense cities.
So when the 1979 oil shock hit, the cycle simply repeated itself. Largely the result of political instability in Iran followed by the Iran-Iraq War, this oil shock looked a lot like the one in 1973, but more severe. Oil prices doubled, gas lines returned, the domestic auto industry got battered as consumers rushed to buy fuel efficient models which Detroit largely didn’t make. Americans mostly blamed President Carter. Oil production both domestically and abroad increased, and gradually prices declined, resulting in an oil glut in the 1980s, during which prices stabilized and then fell.
Just like in 1973, none of the efforts to deal with the second oil shock, as it came to be called, altered the fundamental dynamic that Americans rely on cheap, available oil and gasoline, much of which comes from foreign producers. The percentages changed, but the underlying principle did not.
And so the cycle repeated yet again in the mid-2000s in the aftermath of the Iraq War. And now we see it once more in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Gas prices skyrocket due to a foreign conflict involving an oil-producing nation, temporarily affecting supply. Once again, none of the efforts to deal with the oil shock alter the fundamental dynamic that Americans rely on cheap, available oil and gasoline, much of which comes from foreign producers, and a decrease in output of just a few percentage points sends shockwaves throughout the market.
The system is terribly fragile, which is why it keeps happening. The U.S. consumed some 19.8 million barrels of oil a day in 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration, about 672,000 of which came from Russia, or just 3 percent. But the global market for oil is immensely complicated and interconnected, which is why gas prices in the U.S. are soaring because of a war involving a country the U.S. gets less of its oil from than it does from Colorado.
Looking around social media, political, and expert commentary—some of which has depressingly resorted to reviving the “drill baby drill” slogan—there seems to be at least some recognition that short term measures might be helpful. A growing chorus argues for extending work from home policies, even though some research suggests people drive more when they work from home. And any conversation about shifting the nation’s energy policies necessarily involves reckoning with how it will affect emissions.
However, these discussions only highlight how little has changed since previous gas price surges. The only long-term change with any momentum in public discourse or political circles is extracting more fossil fuels (albeit with more pushback than previous cycles because of climate change). Any other policies that could actually help right now reveal just how limited the options really are.
Electric vehicles, just like all cars, are already in short supply thanks to the global semiconductor shortage and other supply chain issues, so there’s no point in trying to incentivize people to go out and buy EVs right now. Even an incredibly ambitious policy to inject billions of dollars into the nation’s public transit systems to run more and faster service, for example, would take time to implement by hiring and training more workers (for whom there is already a shortage) and building infrastructure, not to mention buying more buses and trains. Closing streets to make bicycling more appealing would be a great start, but that would have to be done on the local level and, because most Americans commute too far to bike, it would likely piss off more people than it would help. Redesigning streets on a huge scale to enable both would take time.
The simple but difficult answer is there is no short-term solution to ease the burden of a gas price surge when our country is so fundamentally reliant on driving everywhere. It’s a Catch-22: If we weren’t so reliant on driving, it would be easier to promote alternatives during times of rising prices, but it’s hard to promote those alternatives because most people see them as not viable or in conflict with driving everywhere.
The best path forward is also the hardest to convince people of and the most politically difficult. It is the one that gives people genuine options to not use oil or electricity created by burning oil during times of price shocks. It is a lot more domestically-produced clean energy and electric vehicles that derive power from those sources. It is a lot more—and a lot better—public transportation. It involves a lot more places where people can walk or bike to their jobs, grocery stores, and schools.
All of those goals are perfectly achievable. But they also take a long time to enact. If history is any guide, we won’t accomplish them, because doing so requires accepting changes in society, planning for the future, and remaining committed to that plan even when the gas price surge ends. And those are not things Americans have proven willing to do. Historically, when gas prices go down, sales of gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups rebound. There’s little reason to think 2022 will be any different.