Although I lived through harrowing times as a World War II artillery gunner, I have never seen American people more vulnerable than when the OPEC oil embargo dealt the U.S. a body blow 30 years ago.
I was reminded of those fearsome days recently, as Arizona saw long gas lines and oil and gasoline prices spiraled upward nationwide, a widespread blackout left 50 million people sweating in the dark, and natural gas shortages threatened to push up heating and electricity costs. Once again, energy is on the front pages -- and on the front burner for consumers, businesses and policy-makers.
Spurred by the OPEC embargo in October 1973, I gave considerable thought to "vaccinating" our country against future energy crises. I approached my former Senate colleague, Democrat Hubert Humphrey, about co-founding a bipartisan organization dedicated to energy efficiency. The organization would educate the public, business, and political leaders about employing the latest technologies to reduce energy use.
When we founded the Alliance to Save Energy in 1977, Sen. Humphrey and I -- perhaps naively -- anticipated the day when energy efficiency would be so ingrained in public policy and business and consumer behavior that such an organization would be unnecessary. Despite much progress, that day still remains a hope and a dream.
U.S. dependence on oil from the volatile Persian Gulf has nearly tripled since 1973. And as we face the 30th anniversary of the OPEC oil embargo on October 17, the need for energy efficiency is more crucial than ever.
As demonstrated by the embargo-era gas lines, transportation is where that frightening oil dependence really hits home. Transportation consumes more oil than any other area of our economy, gobbling up about two-thirds of total consumption.
In response to the OPEC embargo, Congress and the president tackled that challenge head-on, setting the nation's first fuel economy standards in 1978. As a result, average fuel economy for cars and light trucks increased by two-thirds from 1973 to the late 1980s.
But we have lost ground. Fuel economy has slipped to a 22-year low, though better mileage is well within our grasp. Today's hybrid cars travel 50 to 60 miles on a gallon of gas.
When Congress adopted fuel economy standards years ago, light trucks were limited to farm and other work-related vehicles, so we exempted them from the requirements.
Now, SUVs, minivans and pickup trucks are widely used as passenger vehicles and comprise more than half of new vehicle sales -- more than double their market share in 1983. It's time for Congress to make them adhere to fuel economy standards.
Our leaders at all levels must embrace and articulate the message that wringing out energy waste lowers costs, fosters economic growth, protects the environment and enhances national security. And they must enact public policies that encourage energy efficiency by government, business, industry and consumers.
The Alliance research reveals that 92 percent of homeowners agreed that business, government and consumers have an equal responsibility to reduce energy use; 89 percent said government should set an example by doing more to reduce its own energy use; and 80 percent agreed that our country needs to reduce foreign oil imports.
The bottom line -- now as it was 30 years ago, when OPEC threw America into turmoil -- is that energy efficiency must be the foundation of our nation's energy policy, not just an afterthought or the response to a crisis.
Now, as in 1973, energy efficiency is the quickest, cleanest, cheapest way to extend our nation's energy supplies and avoid future energy crises.
Charles H. Percy is a former three-term Republican U.S. Senator from Illinois and co-founder and former chairman of the Alliance to Save Energy.