In a struggle to be happy and free

Drystone Wall


In 1950, the United States could provide for all its own energy needs.

By 1970, it imported a third of the oil it used.

In 1973, the middle eastern oil producers halted shipments of oil entirely because the US started to re-supply Israel during the Yom Kippur war. The price of oil jumped from $3 per barrel to $12. This is astonishing to me both because it’s a four-fold increase that occurred virtually overnight, and also because the current cost is between $40 and $50 and we’re happy because it peaked at $147.27 less than a year ago.

In 1973, the US government unveiled Project Independence, a plan to make the US energy independent. President Nixon, in his State of the Union Address, said the United States would be energy independent by the end of the 1970s.

In 1976, President Carter echoed Nixon’s idea of energy independence, though he pushed the deadline back to 1985.

In the interim, the price of oil dropped steadily. By the time Reagan took over, energy independence fell by the wayside. Reagan removed the solar panels Carter had installed on the White House. By the early 1990s, oil was back down to $10 per barrel and SUVs were all the rage.

Today, the Unites States imports nearly two thirds of the oil it uses. This sends four billion dollars out of the country, daily.

Every day, the world uses 85 million barrels of oil. A barrel is 42 US gallons or 159 litres. That’s a daily use of 3½ billion gallons or 13½ billion litres. Over the course of a year, this volume would cover the Unites States to a depth of 20 cm or 7¾ inches.

Another way to imagine this volume is in the form of a storage tank. The tank is cylindrical, covering a circular area of land 1128 metres (3700 feet) across. This is exactly a million square metres (1 square kilometre). To hold the oil used by the world in a year, the storage tank would need to be 5 kilometres (3 miles) high. This would be a hazard to commercial aircraft!

The problem with crazy numbers like these is they’re hard to imagine. So let’s take something you know. How about the Empire State Building. How does it compare to this big storage tank? Frankly, it doesn’t. As big and impressive as the building is, the Empire State Building’s volume wouldn’t even hold a single day of the world’s consumption of oil. In fact, you’d need to fill it 13 times to equal the world’s daily oil consumption.

No matter what you think of global warming or how much oil there is left, it’s hard to argue that we use a lot of oil to maintain our civilization and way of life.


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  1. What I’m not understanding is why Reagan removed the solar panels. Regardless of how low the price on a barrel was, supplementing their energy with solar energy is just the responsible thing to do. After all, who pays the electric bill for the White House? I’m fairly sure the President and First Lady don’t sit down once a month to write checks for their utilities! Once again, it’s the taxpayers who cover the cost, and the solar panels would have been a small way to help save us a little money. Very small, but symbolically important.

  2. Good question, Sethra! Good enough that I had to try to find out. In the blog Shepard on Politics and Policy the author explains:

    the New York Times published an AP article on August 24, 1986 saying “The panels of the system had been dismantled to fix the roof underneath. Dale A. Petroskey, a White House spokesman, said Friday, ‘Putting them back up would be very unwise, based on cost.’ ”

    Funny too, because the blogger was writing about the same documentary from which I had learned this fact. Now I’m merely embarrassed that I hadn’t thought to look this up first and include the information in the post.

  3. Thanks for looking into that, Rick. I don’t agree with their reasoning, but at least they had one.

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