What Is the ‘Energy Crisis’?


President Nixon’s energy policy, expounded in April and amended in each subsequent turn of economic policy, down to the imposition in June of Freeze Two, has failed so far to halt even the rhetoric of the “energy crisis.” The President’s energy message was received with judicious commendation by large and small US oil corporations. Nixon proposed the liberalization of oil imports, increased support for domestic production and refining, relaxation of controls on natural gas prices, reduced concern for environmental protection, and a new system of tax credits for oil and gas exploration. These suggestions inflated the already high price of oil stocks. The Wall Street Journal quoted the opinion of an oil analyst that “the [unpredictedly but ambiguously munificent] tax credit was the only surprise in the energy message.”

Nixon’s statement stayed close to the hopes and exhortations, even to the language, of the petroleum industry’s corporate advertising. His major projects followed most of the recommendations of the American Petroleum Institute, the National Petroleum Council, the American Gas Association, and the other institutes and associations that had described America’s energy crisis. The presidential message achieved a tone that mixed the calm and shrill, major and minor, multinational and nationalistic, Eastern and Texan voices of different energy interests: it was less sophisticated, less farsighted perhaps, than the reflections of the Mobil corporation, as advertised on the “Op-Ed” page of the New York Times, but less strident than the pronouncements of, say, the “New England Oil Men’s Association.”

Such a mixture of political-corporate business as usual was unexpected only because of the expense and momentous anticipation that attended Nixon’s energy “initiative.” Early descriptions of the forthcoming energy plan had promised the most global and photogenic policies. Soon after the 1972 election, Secretary of Commerce Peterson proclaimed that “the energy strategies and programs the President presents next year will be fully equal to his initiatives to the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.” The subsequent message was prepared with the help of some sixty government reports, a cabinet super-committee, an energy overlord, a White House energy coordinator trained by the US Navy, and, sporadically, Dr. Kissinger’s secretariat.

The Wall Street Journal, in January, noted that Kissinger’s staff had organized “paperwork” on the strategic aspects of energy policy, and planned to “float it around the State Department, Pentagon, CIA and other concerned agencies.” Energy policy was presented as a major endeavor for the period “after Vietnam.” As one “Kissinger staffer” revealed, “Suddenly we’ve realized we should worry about energy problems. We’ve been pondering which matters to stress over the next |four years, and this is certainly one.”

The rhetoric of political anticipation suggested questions which a US energy initiative could not hope to answer. The message was, as one government official put it, a “disappointment.” Policies of Kissingerian balance were never very appropriate to the complicated and essentially economic problems of supplying oil, coal, and gas. The eventual energy message in fact minimized issues of national defense. Commentators noted that…

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