Some time in the early 1970s, McDonald’s ran a commercial called “Gas Line” (You can watch it on You Tube). Set to jaunty music, the spot opens on what viewers of the time would instantly recognize as a familiar and depressing scene: a long train of cars lined up down the block, waiting for hours to fill their tanks with gas made suddenly scarce by a devastating Middle East oil embargo against the United States. The resulting gas lines and ubiquitous filling station signs reading “Out of Gas” were demoralizing, but McDonald’s played the crisis for laughs. “Excuse me,” a guy in the commercial says to his disgruntled neighbor. “Would you watch my place in line? I’m just going to run over to McDonalds.” The neighbor agrees, on the condition that the guy brings him back a Big Mac. As he makes his way down the line, other gas line dwellers call out orders for fries, shakes, and Cokes. The catchy, relentlessly upbeat McDonald’s jingle “You deserve a break today!” plays as our hero returns, fast food in hand, eliciting smiles and cheers from the hungry crowd as they happily push what appears to be an AMC Gremlin up alongside a gas pump.
American drivers of the 70s did indeed deserve a break. In 1973, after two decades of spectacular economic growth and what appeared to be unlimited access to cheap oil and gas, Americans got a rude awakening to the new world energy order when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC (which until then most Americans had never heard of but would thereafter hear about all too often), raised the price of oil from $5.12 to $11.65 a barrel. As gasoline prices in the U.S. nearly doubled (from an average of 38 cents to 55 cents a gallon), the Arab members of OPEC sucker punched an already price-shocked American public by announcing an oil boycott of the United States as payback for its support of Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Suddenly, dire predictions of oil scarcity made ever since Edwin Drake drilled his first commercial well in Titusville were realized. The embargo lasted only three months, but that was long enough for the average American to grasp the unsettling fact that the United States had become largely dependant on Middle East oil. For most of the 20th century, the United States had produced not only most of its own oil but was a major exporter as well. Nearly all of the oil used to power Allied cars, trucks, tanks and planes during WWII came from U.S. wells. After the war, American oil reserves were still plentiful, but exploding economies in the United States, Europe, and Japan created unprecedented demand for oil and fuel and ballooned consumption to unimagined highs. In the United States alone, during the 50s and 60s the number of American car owners rose from 45 to 119 million. Meanwhile, airlines, manufacturing, farming and other fuel-intensive industries around the world grew apace, further straining petroleum stocks.
The world needed more oil, and just as Harold Hibbert had predicted in the 1920s, the Middle East became a primary target for exploration. In 1944, America’s most respected oil geologist, Everette Lee DeGolyer, heading the federal Petroleum Reserves Corporation mission to the Middle East, reported that Arab lands sat atop at least 25 billion barrels of crude. (Privately, DeGolyer believed that the Middle East harbored more than 300 billion barrels—an estimate that he kept to himself until later.) In its report to the State Department, DeGoyler’s team claimed that “The oil in this region is the greatest single prize in history.”[i] Although the Middle East had long been known for its abundant oil seeps, in the mid 40s the region produced less than five percent of the world’s oil. After the war, as American oil companies moved in and proved DeGoyler’s estimate accurate, the balance of power in the oil world began to shift from west to east, from the Gulf region of the United States to the Persian Gulf. Throughout the next two decades, the world’s most power oil companies known as the “Seven Sisters”—Standard Oil of New Jersey, Royal Dutch Shell, Anglo Persian Oil Company, Standard Oil of New York, Standard Oil of California, Gulf Oil, and Texaco—controlled the region’s vast oil reserves, reaping astronomical profits. In 1960, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela (later joined by nine other oil-rich nations) banded together to form OPEC, the primary purpose of which was to stabilize prices and to begin to seize control of the wells and drilling operation from the Seven Sisters. By the early 1970s, OPEC member nations had nationalized their oil operations, effectively giving them an iron grip on the bulk of the world’s oil supply and unprecedented power to raise prices and cut off supplies at a moment’s notice, as they did to the United States in 1973.
Stuck in long lines at the gas station and disheartened by President Jimmy Carter’s televised speeches admonishing people to cut back and use less energy, the average American was left wondering what had happened to their country’s former might. The oil embargo was the first, frightening sign of the United States’ energy vulnerability that not even a peppy jingle and order of fries could make seem OK, despite McDonald’s self-serving efforts to boost the nation’s spirits.
OPEC lifted the embargo after three months, but it left lingering psychological and economic scars as the dreary 70s stretched on and oil and gas prices remained high. Soon after Jimmy Carter became the country’s 39th president, in his famously (or infamously, depending on your politics) dispiriting “moral equivalent of war” speech Carter lectured the American public about the energy catastrophe that would bring the United States to its knees unless people were willing to use less gas and oil.[ii] In hindsight, it seems obvious that Carter could have tempered the dour tone of the speech by talking up the potential for America’s stalwart farmers to fight back against OPEC by turning their vast acres of surplus crops into fuel-ready alcohol. But although the president mentioned solar cells and coal, in this and a later speech (when Carter addressed the nation wearing a sweater and sitting near a live fireplace, even though it was April) he never mentioned alcohol as a possible panacea.
The president’s omission was particularly disappointing for farmers. Since WWII, American farms had grown increasingly mechanized and dependent on oil and gas, resulting in record-breaking harvests. But by the mid 70s, superabundant yields became a major problem when farmers were hit with the double whammy of skyrocketing energy costs and spiraling prices for corn, wheat, and other dependable cash crops. As the authors of The Forbidden Fuel note, American farmers were in some sense victims of their own success. The bumper crops made possible by motorized equipment, fertilizer, pesticide, and other products made from oil (including, most obviously, gasoline) created a glut that lowered prices. Forced to grow more crops per acre to break even, farmers had no choice but to rely even more heavily on fuel and fertilizer, driving energy prices up even as ever-increasing yields dragged grain prices further down. Caught in a classic Catch-22, thousands of farmers borrowed heavily to keep their operations going and fell deeper into debt. Many others went bankrupt.[iii]
Grassroots interest among farmers in reviving the alcohol fuel business received little federal support. Although today we remember Jimmy Carter as a conservation-minded president who put solar panels on the White House roof, in the late 70s he was suspected of being in thrall to the oil industry, if not exactly in cahoots. As an editorial in The Washington Post noted in 1977, Carter’s energy plan strongly backed alternative fuel avenues favored by Big Oil—such as coal gasification and oil-shale exploration—while devoting only a single sentence to the potential for alcohol fuel.[iv] Given the cold shoulder by administration, farmers began to go it alone, channeling the spirit of Depression-era moonshiners by experimenting with homemade stills. Farmers of the 70s weren’t out to brew hooch, though; they were determined to turn their vast stores of surplus grain into alcohol fuel that could be mixed with gasoline. One of the first notable moonshine operations was the product of an odd collaboration between Albert Turner, a civil rights worker and leader of the Southwest Alabama Farmer’s Cooperative Association (an organization championing the rights of African American farmers), and Albert Hubbard, an expert moonshiner and ex-con whose illegal brewing operation had landed him in prison in the late 50s. Thanks to Hubbard’s technical prowess and Turner’s gift for promotion—he showed up at an alcohol fuel rally in Washington, D.C. in 1978 with a tractor running on homemade alcohol and gasoline—the duo’s experimental still became a big story, sparking national interest in what was becoming known as the “gasohol” movement.[v]
Soon, thousands of small and medium-scale independent alcohol operations began popping up across the country, producing anywhere from 25 to several thousand gallons of alcohol a day. Gasohol evangelists such as Jerry Wilkerson, a tee-totaling Mormon and former moonshiner, traveled the country in gasohol-powered cars and trucks, touting the benefits of power alcohol. The grassroots gasohol movement spawned offshoot enterprises, including a national alcohol fuels hotline in Colorado publishing the how-to manual Fuel From Farms and annual alcohol fuel seminars sponsored by the magazine Mother Earth News. The magazine also sold alcohol fuel kits, a motor fuels cookbook, chemicals, and blueprints for building a wood-burning still. Recognizing the futility of fighting the trend, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms pitched in by issuing permits for private stills.[vi] Colby Community College, in western Kansas, even offered courses in moonshining.
By the late 70s, the time was more than ripe for the rise of gasohol. After several years of lobbying, farm strikes, and “tractorcades” blocking streets in major cities had gotten the attention of the American public (even though it failed to convince the still-recalcitrant Carter administration to impose tariffs to raise the price of domestic crops), people were ready and willing to support gasohol at the pump. Even though the alcohol-gasoline hybrid was still more expensive than regular gasoline, as noted in The Forbidden Fuel a 4-cent-per gallon tax break allowed the price of gasohol to remain within shouting distance ($1.20 per gallon compared to gasoline at around $1.05 at its peak in the late 70s). Echoing the not-so-distant alcohol fuel past, in 1978 a single filling station in Lincoln, Nebraska offered a 10 percent gasohol blend. By the middle of 1979, more than 1200 gasohol pumps operated throughout the Midwest. Two years later, the number ballooned to 10,000 across 50 states.
Reporters, columnists, and politicians took note. As early as 1978, venerable Chicago Tribune columnist Jack Mabley began championing the gasohol movement. Describing the first time he filled his ’77 Granada with gasohol at a gas station in Decatur, Illinois, Mabley reported that “The car is frisky and just purrs along. It should. I gave it a drink of the stuff that humans put in fancy bottles and call vodka.” Putting wisecracks aside, by the end of the article Mabley officially jumped on the gasohol bandwagon. “There’s much to be done,” he wrote. “There are enormous economic pressures not to do it. For myself, I’ll pay 3 or 4 more cents a gallon for gasohol to make my car happier, and to help support an idea whose time has come.”[vii] In late 1979, South Dakota Republican senator Larry Pressler attempted to buoy support for a bill that would require all gasoline to include 10 percent alcohol by 1991 by brewing corn alcohol in a makeshift still set up in front of the U.S. Capitol. (Pressler also hoped the stunt would boost his chances of winning the Republican presidential primary.)[viii] More skeptically, Washington Post reporter Jane Seaberry noted that while drivers had taken to gasohol in large numbers, “increased production has been stymied in part by the high cost of construction a plant, the lack of real knowledge about the fuel, its slightly higher cost than regular gasoline [and] the indication that most of the major oil companies might not distribute it.”
But despite its relatively high cost, gasohol was on a roll, both as a social trend and a hot selling commodity. Unlike the chemurgist’s power alcohol movement of the 30s, which even at its height was little more than a fringe enterprise, the gasohol initiative of the late 70s soon morphed from a grassroots phenomenon to a legitimate industry when grain processing giant Archer Daniels Midland entered the gasohol business in the 1979. ADM could brew more corn alcohol in a single day than the most productive farm-based still could produce in a year. Soon, ADM was producing more than 50 millions gallons of alcohol anually and had cornered 80 percent of the gasohol market. [ix] Smelling profits, other companies, such as East Coast-based distiller Publicker, joined the fray. Even the old Atchison Agrol plant, which since the 1950s had been used to distill beverage alcohol, got in the game under the direction of a Detroit businessman with the poetical name of Cloud Cray.[x]
By the early 1980s, the corn ethanol industry was firmly entrenched. Not even Ronald Reagan’s anti-big government, pro free market (and by extension pro Big Oil) policies could derail ethanol. Despite Reagan’s landslide victory in the 1980 presidential election and almost gleeful repudiation of Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis policies (punctuated by the unceremonious removal of Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof in 1982), the confidant and handsomely coiffed new president couldn’t snuff out the ethanol industry’s generous subsidies that came online during the final month’s of the Carter administration.[xi] Ironically, the one alternative energy technology that Carter had conspicuously ignored not only survived the Reagan regime but thrived. By the early 1980s, the farm belt-led and Republic-backed corn ethanol lobby was a formidable powerhouse able to maintain the 54-cent-per-gallon gasohol tax break still in place today. A few years later, in 1986, corn ethanol got a major boost when the decade-long gradual phase out of leaded gasoline reached completion. Needing a non-toxic replacement to protect against knocking from low-octane fuel, oil companies turned to ethanol. Coupled with the federal Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 requiring smog-plagued cities to sell gasoline with added oxygen, the increased demand for ethanol kicked the industry into overdrive. By the end of the 90s, U.S. ethanol firms were pumping out nearly 1.5 billion gallons a year. By 2006 the output had more than doubled. In journalist Hal Bernton’s evocative phrasing, ethanol plants “rose like rocket ships from concrete pads set amongst corn and soybean fields.”[xii]
[i] Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (New York: Free Press; New edition 2008), p. 375. As Yergin notes, DeGoyler saw the big picture and understood what tapping the massive Arabian oil fields would mean for the industry. “The center of gravity of world oil production is shifting from the Gulf-Carribean area to the Middle East—to the Persian gulf area, and is likely to continue to shift until it is firmly established in the area,” Yergin quotes DeGoyler.
[ii] You can watch the speech on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tPePpMxJaA&NR=1. “I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history,” Carter begins, seated behind the presidential desk in the Oval Office. “Two days from now, I will present my energy proposals to the Congress. Many of these proposals will be unpopular. Some will cause you to put up with inconveniences and to make sacrifices.” Carter may have been right, but as history has shown, Americans are not particularly responsive to words like ‘inconvenience’ and ‘sacrifice.’ No wonder Carter didn’t stand a chance against Ronald “The Gipper” Reagan in 1980.
[iii] Bernton, Kovarik & Sklar, Forbidden Fuel, p. 36.
[iv] Jack Anderson, “Alcohol Fuels: An Overlooked Answer for Energy?” The Washington Post, Sept. 18, 1977.
[v] Need note here from The Forbidden Fuel.
[vi] See “Moonshiners Encouraged to make Fuel for Cars,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 5, 1980.
[vii] Jack Mabley, “Gas and alcohol—the DO mix,” Chicago Tribune, Sep. 3, 1978.
[viii] “Senator Brews Corn Liquor to Back Gasohol,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 9, 1979. For reasons unknown, the unidentified UPI journalist was clearly biased against Pressler, barely disguising his or her contempt for the moonshine-brewing senator. “About three drops of alcohol plopped into a gallon jug marked with a skull and crossbones while Pressler was telling reporters that stepped-up alcohol production can cut oil imports by 11%,” the article scornfully notes. Another paragraph describes the still’s solar-powered apparatus as “20 solar mirrors that flapped uselessly in the breeze on a flimsy wooden frame.” Needless to say, the article didn’t help Pressler’s chances in the primaries.
[ix] Forbidden Fuel, p. 60.
[x] Need note here.
[xi] What happened to the panels? According to historian Carroll Purcell, they were stored for a decade—presumably in the White House basement (it has one; I looked it up)—and then shipped off to “a college in Maine.” Carroll Purcell, “The Rise and Fall of the Appropriate Technology Movement in the United States, 1965-1985,” Technology and Culture, 34:3 (Jul. 1993) p. 633.
[xii] Forbidden Fuel, p. xvii.