"Did you know that 2007 will mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1972-73 oil crisis?"

5 March 2007
"Did you know that 2007 will mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1972-73 oil crisis?"

oil crisis, power, energy, energy security

"Did you know that 2007 will mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1972-73 oil crisis?" Although I was quite young at the time, I still have some vague memories of those days: petrol rationing, car-free Sundays, people walking and cycling to work, etc. Perhaps my generation did not feel the impact directly, but surely our parents and grandparents did! A dramatic oil price increase led to one of the worst recessions that Europe had known since the 1930s. According to an economist friend, many of the problems we are facing in European societies today are also ramifications of this event that happened almost thirty-five years ago.

Not long ago an electricity black-out laid parts of France and Germany in the dark for a couple of hours, clearly showing us how fragile our modern society has become. A colleague said: "If terrorists really wanted to hurt us, all they need do is attack the power plants and the whole of modern society would come to a standstill!" My friend said that everyone knows this but it is heresy to say it!

However, the energy crisis in the 1970s also led to greater interest in energy efficiency in Europe (but not so much on the other side of the Atlantic). This concerned especially renewable fuels and spurred research on solar and wind power. It also led to greater pressure to exploit other sources of oil, such as those in the North Sea, while increasing the West’s dependence on coal, nuclear power and natural gas. Natural gas was now employed as a source of energy; before this time it was often flared into the atmosphere. Nevertheless, none of this will be able to replace oil unless more research is undertaken in this field, said experts in a UN seminar on Sustainable Energy in December 2006.

Energy security is among the central political themes in many countries, a diplomat friend told me. It was not until I attended the seminar that I realized how much these questions are of vital importance for all of us.

The liberalization and privatization of the electricity market has led to a reduction in the price of electricity. However, since the electrical transmission system has remained regulated by governments, little investment has been made in this sector. The utility companies are motivated by profit and there is little money to be made by investing in the transmission system. In fact, investments have decreased to such an extent that technical incidents faced by Europeans could become more frequent. So what we might have thought was supposed to be a good thing for society as a whole, turned out to be quite negative in the long run. Should the transmission system remain in the government’s hands?

Many energy suppliers have gained tremendous political power. "In a couple of years, Europe will have to compete to get our natural gas," one representative from a large gas company said. "Due to the pressures of the LNG (liquefied natural gas) market, we can sell our energy anywhere and with increasing demand, there is no problem so sell it to others than the Europeans. So, unless we know where we are heading in terms of property laws, rules and regulations in the EU, etc., we are not going to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new pipelines and other infrastructures." The message was clear and to the point …

So what can we do? We can reduce our individual energy consumption or "footprint" (reduce the heating in our houses, wear warmer clothes, use the microwave more for cooking, walk, ride a bike or use public transport more often, etc.). We can also hope that we as consumers will become more aware of the situation, and encourage our scientists and politicians to make the right choices for all of us so that we can avoid problems in the future. In French they say: Un homme avis? en vaut deux … [A man alerted is worth two].

With these gloomy thoughts, I wish you all a lovely day.