Analysis: the 1973 oil crisis pushed energy into the headlines and led to massive changes across society

In September 1973, troops from the Syrian and Egyptian armies began massing on the border with Israel. Military intelligence in Israel and the US suggested these manoeuvres were simply exercises or defensive mobilisations. On October 6th, this proved to be badly wrong when Syria and Egypt simultaneously attacked Israel from the north and south.

US support for Israel prompted the predominantly Arab states of OPEC to raise the price of oil, cut their production and impose a US embargo. Supply and demand margins in the global oil market were exceptionally slim, causing the price of oil to quadruple from $3 per barrel in September to $11 per barrel by December. This was a dramatic shock to energy-intensive lifestyles around the world after two decades of economic growth buoyed by oil prices below $2 per barrel.

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From RTÉ Archives, Colm Connolly reports for RTÉ News in March 1979 on a shortage of petrol and diesel due to supply shortages

The price of oil stayed around $11 per barrel for most of the 1970s until another price shock in 1979 caused the price to triple. The economic affects of these price spikes in many countries were inflation and recession, but the impacts were even longer lasting for the global energy system. In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent upheavals in the price of oil and gas, it is worth looking back to see what energy shocks can do.

In the 1970s, the world was even more dependent on oil than today. For transport, oil was utterly dominant in cars, buses, trucks and planes. Oil generated 50-70% of electricity needs in many countries (including Ireland, Denmark, Italy, Belgium and Japan) and was used in many homes and buildings for heating. This dominance magnified the economic shocks of the price increases.

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From OldTVTIme, 1973 documentary When the Ciruit Breaks...America's Energy Crisis on the oil crisis

While energy had been creeping up the agenda from the early 1970s in many countries, the 1973 oil shock thrust it into the headlines and speeches of politicians. In the US, a new Department of Energy was created, and the country's president Richard Nixon announced Project Independence, with the aim to be self-sufficient in oil by 1985. Japan launched Project Sunshine to develop solar photovoltaic technology. In Paris, the International Energy Agency (IEA) was founded to co-ordinate the organisation of emergency oil storage for its OECD member countries and help countries gather quality statistics on their energy consumption.

The response to oil price increases and shortages in many countries was reduced demand. Some of the measues adoped included car free Sundays (Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany), exhortations to turn down the thermostat (US), fewer streetlights (Denmark) and a workplace dress-code of no tie and short sleeves to reduce the need for air-conditioning (Japan) were just some of the measures. Electricity companies, including the ESB, encouraged their customers to use less of their product.

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From BicycleDutch, how the Utrecht city centre became car free after a successful 1965 experiment

The sustained high oil prices created a new incentive for energy efficiency. In the US, the pre-crisis norm of "more light is better light" gave way to government sponsored competitions to develop the most energy efficient light bulb. US federal regulations to improve car fuel efficiency were successfully implemented, though these mandatory standards were the basis for increasing vehicle acceleration and vehicle size when oil prices dropped during the 1980s.

For the electricity sector, there was a hasty retreat from oil. Instead, many countries built nuclear power plants, most notably France, but also Germany, Sweden, Belgium, and Japan (despite been the victim of a nuclear attack only 30 years earlier). In Ireland, proposals for a nuclear power plant in Wexford in the 1970s were defeated by people power.

The high price of oil also incentivised more offshore exploration for oil and gas. In the 1970s, Petroleum Engineer International magazine noted that "Cork already looks like an oil town" when gas was discovered off the Old Head of Kinsale. By the 1980s, there was sustained global momentum towards natural gas for power generation. But as European reserves began to run out, this paved the way for increased dependence on imported natural gas from Russia.

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From RTÉ Archives, Liam Cahill reports for RTÉ News in 1987 on Atlantic Resources' claim that there could be commercial oil in Irish seas

A major legacy of the 1970s energy shocks was a huge increase in government investment in research and development for renewable energy technologies. The newly founded IEA had an important role gathering reliable statistics on these trends. These investments in technology innovation, particularly in wind and solar, contributed to the electricity sector changing its supply mix significantly over the following decades. By 2019, wind and solar generated three times more electricity globally than oil.

Political activism was also galvanised during the 1970s. We saw opposition to nuclear power, campaigns for more public involvement in energy decision making and debates about "hard energy paths" (high-energy, nuclear, centralized, supply-side focused) vs "soft energy paths" (lower-energy, fission-free, decentralised, end-use focused). All of this contributed to the formation of Green Parties in many European countries: the Green Party in Ireland began life as the Ecology Party of Ireland in 1981.

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From RTÉ Archives, Teresa Mannion reports for RTÉ News in 1990 on the Green Party attacking the Irish motor industry for not being environmentally friendly

The recent volatility in the price of oil and natural gas have once again highlighted energy insecurity and fossil fuel dependency. But there are now more alternative technology options compared to the 1970s. Wind and solar are mature technologies, electric cars are widely available, bioenergy supply chains are expanding, and hydrogen technologies are scaling up to become market ready. The potential for energy efficiency remains huge, especially for heating in buildings.

There is also an untapped potential for behavioural change, if suitably supported. For the Netherlands and Denmark, a legacy of their car-free Sundays are their cultures of cycling and diminished dependence on cars, but this wouldn't have happened without sustained investment in safe walking and cycling infrastructure. Another lesson worth remembering is that lower speed limits in the 1970s reduced both energy demand and traffic fatalities.

Perhaps the biggest difference between now and the 1970s is the presence of far-reaching climate legislation. In Ireland, carbon budgets and decarbonisation target have enormous potential to accelerate momentum away from fossil fuels. Energy shocks can be destabilising, but they can be transformative with political leadership and the nerve to stick to a long-term plan.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ