America’s most notable gasoline shortage seems like ancient history now, not only to drivers who were not yet born, but even to those of us who were adults in 1973-74. Now, with fuel prices rising rapidly, instability growing in the Middle East and North Africa, and controversy over oil-drilling escalating, a quick look at past crises might be prudent.
Only once has rationing ever become law, and that was during World War II. Through the postwar years, Americans grew accustomed to cheap gas. Few gave a thought to any possible limits to its availability, so the reaction to the 1973-74 crisis came as a shock to nearly everyone.
When the shortages began in 1973, resulting from an embargo on oil supplied by Arab nations through the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), gas stations in many areas soon ran completely out of fuel. Those who still had some saw immense lines of cars waiting to get to the pumps.
As early as May 1973, Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Washington) had proposed a rationing plan. By November, the last of the Arabian oil arrived in the U.S.
President Nixon resisted pressure to establish a standby rationing plan. Even so, the Office of Management and Budget devised several tentative plans, which might have involved issuance of authorization cards, along with coupons that would be good for a specified number of gallons.
Early in 1974, the Nixon Administration did propose a contingency rationing plan. Coupons were printed in January, but they weren’t needed. The OPEC embargo was lifted, and the prospect for rationing disappeared as fuel became more readily available again.
When the second gasoline crisis erupted in 1979, President Carter’s Administration came up with a potential rationing plan, to take effect when the shortage reached a predetermined level. That crisis eased before any such plan was needed, and the prospect for rationing was shelved again.
Most of us think little about that part of the past. Fuel is a big issue nowadays, but the concern is far more about price than any prospect of shortages–whether real or created.
Yet, we’re dealing with oil supplies from an increasingly volatile and politically unstable part of the world, with insurrections and revolts against harsh dictators and despots likely to increase rather than ease. OPEC might not be the likely culprit for a modern-day curtailment of supply, but other routes could lead to that outcome. Keeping our heads in the sand about the possibility could be asking for another harsh surprise one of these days.
Also read, "Protecting Yourself While at the Pump, and other Drive Smart articles.