American and British engineers led the way in searching for new deposits of oil around the world, a process that rapidly accelerated around 1900. By then it had become obvious, to engineers at least, that oil was a safer (on average), cleaner, and smoother form of energy than that produced by coal. Big Coal remained dominant at the start of the 20th century, and most Americans continued to heat their homes with coal well into the 1930s, but those who switched over to oil found it cheaper, easier, and safer to use.
World War II proved an immense boon to the oil industry, both American and foreign. Thousands of new engineers received on-the-job training during the war, and governments as different as those of Nazi Germany and the United Kingdom perceived the need for more oil, something made evident by the dramatic success of Blitzkrieg, the German method of lightning warfare made possible by use of the combustion engine. The Age of Oil began sometime in the 1940s, and shows no sign of retreating today.
The 1950s and 1960s were, for American consumers, a golden age of oil use. Whether it was for the gas that ran their automobiles, or for home heating, oil cost Americans about $.25 a gallon, amazingly cheap by today's standards. Vehicles produced in the 1950s and 1960s reflect this fact; Americans delighted in long, over-built cars, complete with fins and tails. Few people worried, or even thought, about the future of oil consumption, for it seemed that there was plenty of oil to go around.
The switch from coal to oil was complete by the 1960s, with the vast majority of Americans heating their homes with oil. It was just about the same time that the nation, and much of the world, suffered through the coldest decade of the 20th century. Little-discussed today, the winters of the 1960s were so severe that some people, including scientists, spoke of a coming ice age (those discussions were renewed during the brutally cold winters of 1978, 1979, 1982, and 1983). Americans did not feel the pinch during the 1960s because gas and home heating oil remained at roughly the same low prices during that decade, but their European counterparts saw the prices of the same commodities double in the 1960s. By 1970, Europeans were making smaller, more fuel-efficient automobiles, while the American auto industry continued to go for size and impressive performance on the highway.
In many ways, the great turning point was in 1970. By that time, Americans were consuming about 8 million barrels of oil a day, and, for the first time, the nation became a net importer of oil. Americans were mildly surprised to learn that the great Gulf Coast oil fields and refineries were no longer able to meet the national energy needs, but there was little concern because the oil importing nations, such as Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, did not immediately raise their prices. Those nations lowered the boom in winter 1973-74, imposing the first oil embargo against Western nations that favored the state of Israel in its long struggle with its Arab neighbors. The oil embargo of that season doubled oil prices for Americans, who suddenly paid about $.58 per gallon at the pump, and literally tripled oil prices in many European countries. Of all the industrialized nations, Japan, with no oil reserves whatever, was the hardest hit by the 1973-74 embargo.
Conservation suddenly became the watchword of the day. Americans flocked to buy new, smaller automobiles, and a national campaign to keep thermostats lower had some success. Americans grumbled at the sudden onset of austerity, but throughout the mid-1970s, energy conservation and the exploration of alternative energy sources remained a national priority. American oil consumption remained steady, at about 9 million barrels per day, in the 1970s, and some milder winters (those of 1975, 1976, and 1977) provided some respite from the situation. However, the "failed" presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977-81) proved to be the breaking point, both in terms of the public attitude and public action. Carter came into office wearing cardigan sweaters, and he urged his fellow Americans to do the same. There was some movement toward his position until the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979-81, which decisively altered American attitudes toward Arab (or in this case Persian) oil-producing nations. American national policy switched from energy conservation to aggressive defense of American oil conduits around the globe.
The 1980s saw a steady rise in American oil consumption, with the nation reaching about 15 million barrels per day in 1986. The suburban minivan appeared on the car market around that time; and the Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV) began to rule the road in the 1990s. After the triumphant result of the First Persian Gulf War, in which the United States led a coalition of forces to defeat Saddam Hussein's Iraq, oil prices fell to their lowest in almost a decade, and did not recover through the entire decade. In 2000, the United States hit a record of 20 million barrels of oil per day (in over all use), and about 50 percent of that was imported. Few concerns were registered at the time.
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