In an Oil Boom, Reason to Mourn 55 Mph Speed Limit (Op-Ed)
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Jeremy Deaton writes about the science, policy and politics of climate and energy for Nexus Media. You can follow him at @deaton_jeremy. Deaton contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

In December, U.S. lawmakers voted to end the nation's decades-long ban on the export of crude oil, which was passed to limit American dependence on foreign oil. Fittingly, the move came almost 20 years to the day after the repeal of another key energy policy: the 55 mph speed limit. 

Both measures were created in response to the 1973 oil crisis. Their dismantling speaks to a regrettable shift in the way Americans think about energy and national security.

From famine to feast

Roughly 40 years ago, Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) ended oil exports to the United States in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The embargo drove up the price of oil. Drivers saw lines around the block at gas stations, and the economy dipped into recession.

With the embargo, the country witnessed an uncomfortable tip in the global balance of power as the American economy slipped into the stranglehold of oil-producing Arab states. With the aim of achieving energy independence, the U.S. Congress banned the export of crude oil and created the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, an emergency supply of petroleum to weather shocks in the oil market. Congress also instituted a new national speed limit of 55 mph that replaced faster speed limits previously set by the states. Americans would drive slower to limit petroleum use in an effort to help the United States regain its economic autonomy and diplomatic authority.

Did the speed limit work? It's difficult to tease the signal from the noise — oil imports fluctuated during the following years, as did the percent of imports supplied by OPEC. But, according to the Congressional Research Service, the national speed limit cut domestic consumption by about 167,000 barrels of oil a day and saved Americans $2 billion a year in fuel costs. And, while the 55 mph speed limit meant longer commutes, reduced speeds also saved as many as 4,000 American lives annually, according to the National Research Council's Transportation Research Board.

Moreover, the measure had symbolic import. For generations, civilians had contributed to the national defense in direct and meaningful ways, like planting victory gardens and donating scrap metal. The 55 mph speed limit belonged to this long tradition. During the Iranian hostage crisis, drivers saw Iran's leader Ayatollah Khomeini on billboards reading "Fight Back … Drive 55!" The public service announcement reminded motorists to ease off the gas. Driving slower conserved fuel, meaning fewer U.S. dollars going overseas to prop up petro-dictators like Khomeini.

Eventually, however, Americans' contempt for the ayatollah faded, and in 1995, the national speed limit was repealed. Its abolition adhered to a trend away from civilian participation in national security. This shift has robbed climate advocates of an essential argument for clean energy and energy efficiency. 

Yes, oil still props up dictators

American consumption of foreign oil continues to support regimes whose policies oppose the interests and values of the United States. According the Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2014, about a third of net crude oil and petroleum product imports came from Russia (5 percent), Venezuela (10 percent) and Saudi Arabia (17 percent). Each country sports a laundry list of human rights abuses.

Saudi Arabia, noted Tom Friedman in a recent New York Times Op-Ed, has spent billions spreading its "puritanical, anti-modern, anti-women, anti-Western, anti-pluralistic Wahhabi Salafist brand of Islam." But, Friedman said, the United States has "never called them on that — because we're addicted to their oil and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers." And in Paris, Saudi Arabia was accused of trying to thwart the recent COP21 climate agreement, according to a recent piece in the Guardian

The United States need not support oil dictators overseas. The recent drop in the price of oil offers a view of what can be accomplished when Americans limit demand for foreign petrol by conserving fuel. According to a 2014 explanation from The Economist, energy efficiency helped drive down the demand for petroleum, contributing to lower oil prices.

With reduced oil earnings, Venezuela saw its influence over Cuba wane, according to Moisés Naím writing in 2014 in The Atlantic, leading to a thawing of relations between Washington and Havana. 

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The drop in oil prices has also put a dent in the income of the Islamic State. "I don't think this will lead to [ISIL's] collapse," analyst Torbjorn Soltvedt recently told Erika Solomon in The Financial Times. "But it might accelerate their implosion."

Americans can further depress the price of oil by embracing clean energy and energy efficiency. That means investing in energy-efficient vehicles and taking steps individually to save energy. In doing so, average Americans may provide for the national security — this is something the country has long known and long endorsed. 

Jimmy Carter’s "Crisis of Confidence" speech, while often remembered as a tactical misstep, deeply resonated with Americans at the time. In his remarks, Carter implored citizens "to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel." 

His remarks have not lost a shred of relevance, particularly to the point of national security. Said Carter, "Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense — I tell you it is an act of patriotism."

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