Federal security officials felt it was necessary last week to remind Americans do not put gasoline in plastic bags. Hey folks, that’s dangerous. Remember?
What turned out to be a short-lived shortage of gasoline at thousands of local stations quickly panicked those consumers who were most dependent on fuel. Many lined up, filled up, and then messed up, piling up extra gallons in unsafe containers. Lack was concentrated in the southeast, but millions of others across the country watched on television.
We may be shaking our heads at stories of extreme behavior, but we all have a sharp reminder of the role of gasoline in our daily lives and our national economy. Far away DarkSide computer hackers who attacked the colonial pipeline showed they could pinch an artery in our neck. And that is it really dangerous, for the economy and for the country.
Some Americans actually remember gas pipelines of the 1970s and how they contributed to the fall of the two presidents. And if not, at least you’ve heard stories and seen pictures.
Any kind of energy disruption can jump prices, with fast ripple effects. This can be especially true when the shortage of other raw materials already causes fear of inflation. And that’s not even mentioning how such torment makes it harder for the CEO to manage other concurrent challenges.
All of this brings danger to the home of President Biden and his party. So it didn’t seem strange that the White House was at least talking about calling out the National Guard, like NBC News reported had, or considered other military options. The Pentagon issued a statement saying the president had not instructed the military to help.
Not surprisingly, a Republican governor who could be a presidential candidate will declare a state of emergency across the state, as Florida did from Ron DeSantis in response to the pipelines.
Mid-week, colonial launched its 5,500-mile system and it seemed that the disorder would soon be over. Panic shopping subsided. The news moved on.
But the lessons have yet to be learned.
The colonial shutdown certainly shows the vulnerability of the energy sector – and U.S. industrial plants in general – to cyber-attackers seeking ransom money. If naughty cyber gangs can cause so much devastation, how much more could a hostile military force achieve?
(Administration officials have suggested that the hack originated from within Russia but was not necessarily linked to Russian President Vladimir Putin or his previous cybercrime partners.)
If the types of pipelines we have seen in the southeastern states are repeated in recent weeks, they would hint at the most difficult problems for any president. Biden, with his statement that he is moving away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible, would be especially vulnerable.
The administration has made clear its long-term commitment to independence from fossil fuels. But in the time it takes, Biden & Company will have to respond to an electorate that is still dependent on those fuels. And a chorus of critics will be ready to blame any shortcoming in Biden’s policies, whether fair or not.
Not so long ago
Harvey Georges / AP
The middle American age today is about 38 years old, so fewer and fewer of us remember being in those pipelines in the 1970s. But those ranks had places in national memory like the guts of presidential assassinations and major terrorist attacks. In 1973, when the first Arab oil embargo supported block drivers and quadrupled prices at a gas station, one presidential adviser likened the event to an attack on Pearl Harbor that ushered the U.S. into World War II.
The embargo led the United States to take an interest in the Middle East and instability in the region, setting the stage for more wars and military interventions.
The president at the time was Richard Nixon, a Republican who had been elected a year earlier in a landslide of 49 states. But on October 1 of his second term, Nixon was gripped by two crises. One of them was the Watergate scandal, an intricate story of abuse of power, a skull and cover-up that attracted the investigative views of Congress and the special prosecutor and the media.
The second crisis was the shooting that erupted when Israel was suddenly attacked by several of its Arab neighbors in Yom Kippur. Israel was briefly on the ropes before the U.S. weighed forces to strengthen its ally, angering Saudi Arabia and some other Arab countries that were exporting a growing share of oil used in the U.S. When they cut off shipments, it only took a few days to cause shortages and provoke panicky purchases and endless queues. Drivers ran out of gas while waiting in line.
Nixon’s approval rating was already down from a 67% peak in January. Then the Arab embargo began the same month Nixon fired the special prosecutor in the Watergate case and the floor fell off. Nixon’s approval fell to 27%. The embargo stretched for six months, Watergate eventually forced Nixon to resign and never rose above 30% again (his final approval was 24%).
Fred Emery, a BBC correspondent reporting on the White House at the time, later wrote a 500-page story Watergate.
“Nixon’s perceived political weakness has certainly contributed to the crisis,” Emery wrote. “And the oil crisis has no doubt contributed to the decline of Nixon’s political fortune at home.”
Brian Alpert / Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Rewind Jimmy Carter, a Democrat elected in 1976 mostly as a candidate at least like Nixon. Carter helped the mediator in peace between Israel and Egypt, but saw his presidency stranded on another oil-producing Middle East country, Iran. The Islamic fundamentalist revolution of 1979 initially reduced only 4% of world production there, but the price of oil would double in 12 months.
Carter’s approval rating, which has stood at 50% since early 1979, has been steadily sinking, reaching a low of 28% in July – the lowest point of his presidency.
Ironically, Carter’s number would improve that winter after Iranian students overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage by the end of Carter’s presidency. There may have been some “gathering around the flag” effects in the public’s initial response to the hostage episode, but Ronald Reagan still brought Carter’s time in office to a landslide by the Election College in November 1980.
Like Nixon, Carter certainly had problems outside the pipeline, odd days of rationalization, and a jump in budget prices. But these Washington scandals and international affairs have not disrupted the daily lives of ordinary voters, at least not as quickly or painfully as unavailable or unavailable gasoline does.
The effectiveness of any American president is always the subject of controversy in the media and the hustle and bustle of the election campaign. But there is no discussion with a view to pipelines or the real difficulties they can bring to individuals.
Something about seeing cars and truck backups is associated with a deep and dark array of fears in the American psyche. Certainly, millions depend on their gas vehicles to get their jobs done, which often means life and death services. Millions simply no longer want to worry about the needle on the meter or the numbers on the computer on the control panel.
This time, a figurative rerun of the film It’s a show from the 70’s lasted only a few days. But what about the next way? Surely no one thinks this time was the last.