The Past: The Environmental “Shot Heard Round the World”
The American public thought little of energy efficiency in the early 1900s. After all, electricity was cheap and widely available thanks to new innovations, growing energy infrastructure, and the advent of petroleum.
With the decline of the whale oil industry in the late 1800s, oil enjoyed newfound popularity as a source of energy. By the turn of the century, oil was fueling internal combustion engines in cars – a former luxury which, thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line method of mass production, had become more widely accessible.
Cheap cars, running on oil, delivered suburbia; Americans could now retreat from city living while still enjoying metropolitan conveniences. Power lines conveyed electricity to rural suburbia, sometimes hundreds of miles outside city centers, and power plants expanded to accommodate growing energy demands.
During this boom, energy use doubled every 10 years.
Gasoline continued to grow unchecked into the decades following World War II, with little attention paid to fuel efficiency. Cars grew into heavy, gas-guzzling machines. By 1970, American automobiles were chugging along at 13.5 miles per gallon and that gallon of gas cost less than a quarter.
Then, on January 28, 1969, America came face-to-face with the toxic cost of their insatiable hunt for energy.
Off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, one of Union Oil’s rigs, Platform A, had burst under pressure. Union Oil had taken a costly shortcut, installing protective steel casing on just 239 ft of the well (as opposed to the required 300 ft). The result was one of the worst environmental catastrophes in American history.
In the first 11 days following the spill, crude oil had gushed from the fissured well at a rate of almost 9,000 gallons an hour. About 3 million gallons would ultimately spew from the well, spreading over 35 miles, before Union Oil plugged the leak. At the time, the Santa Barbara oil spill was the worst oil spill in the United States’ history; today it is still the 3rd largest spill to blight our country’s shorelines.
The Santa Barbara oil spill was a rallying cry – what some have called the environmental “shot heard round the world.” The damage wreaked by the spill inspired Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin senator, to harness the mounting public distress over our treatment of the environment and direct it into a nationwide, public demonstration.
The idea for Earth Day was born of tragedy.
Earth Day and the Present: Efficiency as a National Priority
As the first Earth Day helped build momentum behind a pollution-focused environmental movement, our nation’s dependency on oil rushed full tilt for a fall.
Growing dependence on oil consumption and dwindling domestic reserves drove the United States to increasingly import oil from overseas. When Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo on the United States in 1973, oil prices spiraled out of control. By the time the embargo was lifted in March 1974, oil prices had quadrupled and remained elevated in the years to follow.
The time was ripe for new policy to improve our energy efficiency.
In 1975, Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA). Among other things, the EPCA took two major strides for energy efficiency in the United States. First, it established the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. By enacting fuel economy standards, EPCA aimed to reduce energy consumption.
EPCA also created the Energy Conservation Program for consumer products, which granted the Department of Energy new authority to develop, revise, and implement minimum conservation standards for appliances and equipment. Under this program, the Department of Energy enforces test procedures and minimum efficiency standards for over 60 types of appliances and equipment.
Between 1980 and 2014, energy intensity – defined as energy use per real dollar of gross domestic product (GDP) – declined by 50% marking a considerable improvement in energy efficiency.
According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE):
- The energy use of new clothes washers has declined by more than 70%.
- The energy use of new homes per square foot has declined by nearly 20%.
- The fuel economy of passenger vehicles has improved by more than 25%.
The increased efficiency is paying off in more ways than one: generating jobs, improving national security, and saving consumers about $800 billion in 2014 alone.
Our Future: Staying the Course
Although many factors collectively motivated these efficiency improvements, the voluntary Energy Star program established in 1992 has been a catalyst for widespread advancement and innovation.
The Energy Star program recognizes products with above-average efficiency ratings and identifies them with a sticker to help promote energy-efficient products on the market. You are all likely familiar with the little blue Energy Star sticker – it can be seen on a full suite of products ranging from home appliances, to office equipment, to electronics and even industrial buildings!
Energy Star’s promotional efforts are paying dividends for Americans and the environment. In 2014, the Energy Star program saved American consumers and businesses about $34 billion and prevented more than 300 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from polluting our air.
Despite its successes, the Energy Star program has been on President Trump’s chopping block. In his budget for 2021, the Trump administration proposes the elimination of 50 EPA programs, including the Energy Star rating system. Instead of being voluntary, businesses would pay a fee to participate in the program.
The budget would also eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and reduce funding for energy research and development programs by nearly 50%.
Although disheartening, Trump has consistently proposed cutting funding for those agencies, and Congress has routinely ignored the president’s budget request by instead increasing funding. Since 2017, Energy Star and our national commitment to improving energy efficiency have come under fire, and since 2017 Congress has rejected this assault on progress.