The erased history of energy conservation in the late 20th century

Once upon a time, the gasoline pumps of the USA ran dry.

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

It astounds me daily how much of history of this nation, that I have personally experienced, is already being distorted or erased. We don’t have to go back to the Colonial Period histories of Native American tribes to find “lies that your teacher told you.” For example . . .

My congressman, the gun dealer Andrew Clyde . . . who described the attack on National Capitol as a group of tourists, visiting the Capitol . . . recently sent out a message to his constituents, stating that the dependence of the United States on Russian oil is due to the incompetence of liberal presidents, who created ridiculous environmental regulations for drilling on federally-owned land, plus banned off shore drilling and drilling in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge.   Allow American entrepreneurs to drill anywhere without environmental restrictions and the price of gasoline would come down quickly. 

Of course, in the real world,  the price of gasoline shot up in early 2022, due to speculating on the world’s commodities markets that Russia would quickly conquer Ukraine.  That didn’t happen, so the price of gasoline has come down drastically . . . but we are still having to use our life savings at the supermarket. It would take anywhere from five to ten years for an oil well being drilled now in a remote location to supply a refinery.

Fact Check

It was President Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency and President Ronald Reagan, who banned new offshore drilling, not Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barrack Obama or Joe Biden. Some wealthy Republican donors in Orange County, California complained to Reagan that oil rigs and related boat traffic were spoiling views of the Pacific Ocean from their cliffside mansions.

The United States, Canada and Mexico today are net exporters of energy products and do not use Russian oil or natural gas. Very little Middle Eastern petroleum enters North America.   Many natural gas wells have been capped in the United States, because there is insufficient demand in North America for the available natural gas reserves. Natural gas and propane prices to residential consumers are kept artificially high by a consortium of gas producers. Venezuela has one of the largest proven petroleum reserves in the world, but very little oil is being exported from there, due to the gross incompetence and corruption within its government.  

The three main foci of the Department of Energy in the Biden Administration are promoting sales of American natural gas via improved technology for transporting Liquid Natural Gas, fusion-generated electricity and improving the technology of electrical production that is not dependent on fossil fuels. Entering the third decade of the 21st century, we are seeing a massive expansion of miniaturized solar cell applications in devices varying from traffic signs to gadgets in the home.

I am going to take you back in my time machine to the days when the United States first began to realize that we were wasting large amounts of energy. You will learn what it was like to live in that time and place. Actually, to be honest. The experience was like being hit by a tsunami.

The College of Urban Life is in the gray tower behind the student center.

The Yom Kippur War Recession

Shortly after becoming the token Southerner in the Ivy League staff of Richard Browne Associates in December 1972, I became acutely aware that I had received an obsolete education from Georgia Tech. At the time, our architecture school was considered one of the best in the nation, but we were being prepared for architecture as it was practiced in the 1920s.

CADD software and robotic plotters had already been invented. It was obvious that manual drafting would soon be a thing of the past. That would require architects and civil engineers to be expert operators of computers. The thousands of hours that I wasted in Calculus classes or learning how to paint architectural renderings with water colors, should have been spent in computer, statistics and real estate economics classes.

The Nixon Administration was providing extensive support for historic preservation efforts around the nation as a means of revitalizing cities. Georgia Tech did not offer a single class in historic preservation. The Nixon Administration was providing billions of dollars to support planned newtowns. I was employed by the most famous of the newtown design teams . . . yet had never had a single course in site planning for newtowns!

So, it was obvious that I needed to get a post-graduate degree from a university that filled the gaps remaining from my five year curriculum at Tech. Since I scored in the upper 2% of college graduates on the GRE, Georgia State University’s College of Urban Life offered me a flexible curriculum, leading to an MS in Urban Planning, which was compatible with my fulltime work schedule. They even would allow me to get credit for research I did while planning the newtowns! After all, our design team was creating the history that future planning students would read. Special bonus – Peachtree City literally had only one unmarried female under the age of 30. Georgia State had over 14,000 coeds.

October 6, 1973: I was sitting in a night-time class on Urban Economics, when our Jewish-American professor announced that Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq has just simultaneously attacked Israel of the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur. The Soviet Union had secretly supplied Egypt with rockets that were slaughtering Israeli Defense Force tank crews and jet pilots. It was projected that Israel would cease to exist as a nation within two weeks and those Israeli citizens, who were not slaughtered by victorious Arab soldiers, would pour into European countries and the United States as refugees.

The Soviet Union threatened the United States with nuclear war, if we shipped munitions to Israel. Fortunately, Richard Nixon ignored the threat. The Soviet Black Sea fleet was headed straight toward the US Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet and planned to blockade Israel, while shelling coastal cities. The US Navy responded by beefing up its presence in the region. The Ruskies backed off. The Israelis eventually won the war, but for the United States, the worse was yet to come. The America I knew, growing up, was changed forever.

During the Yom Kippur War (Nixon Administration), United States oil company executives committed treason. Middle Eastern countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, persuaded the American oil companies to stop delivery of raw petroleum to the United States during the 20-day war. Immediately, gasoline prices jumped substantially. The 64 mile (103 km) round trip between Peachtree City and Georgia State University suddenly cost me substantially more money.

On October 17, 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced an embargo on all countries that were providing aid to Israel. They also increased the price of crude petroleum by 70%. Unlike the immediate cessation of shipments by American oil companies from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, this more drastic tactic was slower to be felt, because many OPEC members honored existing contracts. However, when it did hit the United States, the economies of metropolitan areas quickly collapsed.

In 1973, the concept of a citywide path system for pedestrians, bicycles and golf carts was quite radical. The trail system was separated from the automobile street system by numerous bridges and tunnels. My original plan generally followed the easements of sewers and the floodplains of streams. This was ideal for bicyclists. As Peachtree City grew over the past 50 years, the trail system became increasingly popular. Later extensions were sometimes put into scenic areas that were not flood plains or sewer easements.

Pathway bridge over GA Hwy. 54 in Peachtree City, GA

  • Early November, 1973 – Sales of new houses in Peachtree City almost ceased. The Peachtree City Corporation postponed all pending contracts with our AEP firm until further notice. This was the month in which I finished plans for the citywide golf-cart/bicycle paved path system . . . thinking that it would be necessary, since there was little gasoline for cars for the foreseeable future. At the time, this was a totally revolutionary idea. Developer Joel Cowan’s first response to seeing my drawings was “What is this crap?” Nowadays, he is given credit by Peachtree City’s official history for designing the path system and the plans for the newtown. No mention is made of Richard P. Browne Associates, which officially prepared both documents.
  • Late November, 1973 – I was transferred to the Columbia, MD office until the end of the year. My Georgia State professors let me do independent studies of the economics and recreation facilities in Columbia in lieu of attending classes and taking a final exam at the end of Fall Quarter. I got A’s on both research papers.
  • Being at the bottom of the professional totem pole, my principal job at the Columbia, MD office was driving staff cars to Langley, VA each day to fill them up with gasoline. My boss, a former Captain in Army Intelligence, had learned that the stations near the CIA headquarters in Langley were being secretly supplied with all the gasoline they could sell.
  • By mid-November, the single gasoline station in Peachtree City rarely had gasoline. Part of my journey to Georgia State University included extra time to find a station in Metro Atlanta that had any gasoline for sale – on the day when auto tags with ending in an even number to get gasoline. Georgia had adopted even-odd days for gasoline sales.
  • By December 1973, the gasoline stations often did not have gasoline, when it was your day to buy it. One could wait for hours before pumping gasoline, after a tanker truck delivered fuel. The Peachtree City Corporation cancelled most of our existing projects. The PTC office closed and relocated to Atlanta. Fortunately, I was working on plans for Burke Centre in Northern Virginia and a recreational community in North Carolina, so was not laid off, like those personnel, solely working on PTC projects.

Throughout late 1973 to early 1975, the process of obtaining gasoline was often a nightmare.

  • January 1974 – Gasoline prices had increased 400% since October 1. It was ridiculous for me to be commuting to Atlanta both for work and school, so I moved to an apartment in Midtown Atlanta and put my PTC townhouse up for sale. President Nixon issued an Executive Order that made 55 mph the national speed limit. While campaigning in Georgia, Donald Trump stated that Jimmy Carter reduced the speed limit. This is not true.
  • March 1974 – Despite the fact that impeachment hearings were underway, Richard Nixon and Congress cooperated to reorganize the federal bureaucracy to address issues that were strangling our economy. The Federal Energy Administration (FEA) was created the energy crisis, and specifically the 1973 oil crisis.
  • August 9, 1974 – Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency, while I was on my honeymoon in Mexico. I was in total angst, because on August 6, I had seen an absolutely gorgeous Alicia Moreno (just returned from getting a masters degree in Paris, France) from the front yard of the Soto house in Mexico City. We then talked on the telephone. She lived two blocks away and wanted us to run off together. The Sotos soon told me that my bride, while drunk, had told them that she didn’t love me. She only married me because I had a good job.
  • September 1974 – I no longer had a good job. The United States economy had collapsed. I came back from the honeymoon to learn that the August 15th paycheck from Richard P. Browne associates had bounced. So did the September 1st paycheck. Rather than getting an annulment from the future wife from hell and flying off to Mexico to fetch Alicia, I was forced to live off my new wife’s teaching income, until I could find employment. I soon was hired by the Atlanta Planning Department to prepare the now-famous Midtown Atlanta Urban Design Plan . . . but at a much lower salary.
  • October 1974 – President Gerald Ford and Congress created the Energy Research and Development Administration, which was to focus on alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind, ocean waves and fusion. In fact, the Ford Administration put little effort into the program. It was obsessed with the fact that North Vietnam was about to capture South Vietnam and that our own military was in a miserable state of affairs.
  • 1976 – Jimmy and Roselyn were the first President and First Lady to walk down Pennsylvania Ave. The three priorities of the Jimmy Carter Administration were (1) Healing the hatred between factions, caused by the Vietnam War, (2) Balancing the federal budget and (3) first weaning the USA from Middle-Eastern oil then making the nation energy independent. Carter hired the best technical professionals that he could find, to “energize” the energy program. Although hated by Georgia Republicans as a Librul, I know for a fact from friends within the administration and his offspring, that he worked closely with Moderate Republicans, Conservative Republicans and Moderate Democrats to accomplish these goals.
  • Carter’s s main nemesis was Senator Ted Kennedy’s faction of Fake Liberals. Kennedy wanted the Carter Administration to appear like a failure, so he could be elected President in 1980. Kennedy was deluded in this matter, since the majority of Americans by this time were convinced that Kennedy had murdered Mary Jo Kopechne in 1969, because she was pregnant with Kennedy’s child.
  • 1977 – Congress created the Department of Energy in order to accomplish the goal of the USA becoming energy independent. Some of the first steps was a radical improvement in building codes, plus incentives to install both active solar energy and passive thermal design into buildings. This resulted in major changes for the practice of architecture. Carter also continued all of the enlightened historic preservation and urban revitalization programs of the Nixon Administration. Yes, that’s right. Richard Nixon was not totally a reprehensible person as often painted in the media. In fact, he was very progressive in many ways other than his clandestine political trysts.
  • 1980 – President Ronald Reagan was a popular actor, prior to being governor of California. As a result, he definitely was a better public speaker and propagandizer than Jimmy Carter. Most middle class Americans expected him to be progressive socially and fiscal conservative. Perhaps he would be like Richard Nixon, but without the byzantine politics. Carter almost balanced the budget, his last year in office. Everyone assumed that Reagan would continue that process. We were wrong. He sent the federal debt down in the red again in order to give grandiose tax reductions to the upper 5%. Reagan called it “The Trickle Down Theory.” In other words, eventually the Middle Class would eventually grab pastry crumbs that fell down from the Elite’s cake. Perhaps more so than any president in the 20th century, the Reagan Administration has been fictionalized to the point, that few people know any better.

In 1980, the year that Reagan was elected president, I had the peak annual income, so far in my professional career . . . $137,200 in current dollars. Like most middle class professionals, in the years since then, my literal income went slightly up during good times, but in spending power it went steadily downhill.

Contemporary Republican politicians like to talk about how terrible the economy was during the Carter Administration. No it was not. My highest standard of living occurred during those four years. With this affluence, I was able to develop the nation’s second licensed goat cheese creamery. The bad recessions occurred during the Nixon, Ford and first three years of the Reagan Administration.

Upon coming to office, the Reagan Administration jacked up the prime rate to barbaric levels. This didn’t affect the rich, who rarely borrowed from banks, but it was catastrophic to the middle and upper middle class entrepreneurs, who had borrowed money for entrepreneurial efforts at floating interest rates. Many of the families, who were awarded UDAG*- guaranteed loans to restore buildings and start businesses in Downtown Asheville found themselves paying 24-25% interest. They all went bankrupt. Their restored buildings were picked for a song by wealthy families.

*UDAG = Urban Development Action Grants – a program begun by the Nixon Administration

  • Reagan viewed energy conservation as barrier to rich people getting richer. Have a glib personality and being a successful actor does not necessarily give one wisdom in all matters. He had promised his campaign funders that he would get rid of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency. An alliance of Moderate Republicans and Democrats blocked that dream, but he did the next best thing . . . gut these agencies from the inside.
  • Reagan appointed State Senator Joe Tribble from Savannah, GA as the Assistant Director of the Energy Department. Joe’s responsibility was Energy Conservation. I can call him Joe because, you see, I was a friend of the family. His son, Jim, was a fraternity brother. I was a weekend guest at their home in Savannah. Oh . . . and when Jim’s lovely sister, Traci, saw me on the History Channel years later, she hunted me down and telephoned me several times, trying to persuade me to move into her home with her in Macon, GA. Yes, there is more to the story.
  • The Tribbles were very likable people, but Joe’s hatred of energy conservation and environmental laws was extreme. He was secretly instructed by Reagan to dismantle all energy conservation, solar energy and wind energy programs. Joe started by firing anybody in his agency, who thought energy conservation and solar energy were good ideas. That meant most of the staff was fired.
  • The middle class and some universities remained interested in energy technology for a few mores years, but with such things being labeled “uncool,” while getting rich off of shuffling money was “cool” . . . the interest waned. Cocaine and disco were in. Energy conservation was out. Almost all the companies, started in the Carter Administration, to manufacture or install solar electric panels eventually went bankrupt. The last time that I had a client request active solar technology and passive solar design for their house was in 1986. One client in Rome, GA asked me to design an earth-covered house in 1999. I don’t know if it was ever built.

The impact on architecture

There was really very little research work done by governmental agencies into energy conservation, storm-watering harvesting and solar energy until the 21st century. Building code councils, essentially the private sector, continued to take the ball and run with it. The energy performance of buildings has steadily improved throughout my career. Now major universities with architecture programs are doing very significant research in all of these areas. For a long time, though, it was playing catchup, because Europe and Japan were so far ahead of us, technologically.

Nevertheless, I am still very proud of the series of houses and neighborhood shopping centers that I designed in the Asheville, NC area with the active and passive solar technologies that were developed in the Carter Administration. Being in the Appalachian Mountains, my houses went a step further. They could be heated with a small amount of wood. They also pre-heated hot water with the heat from the custom wood stove chimneys.

All of these avant garde mechanical systems are still working perfectly three to four decades later. The houses bring top dollar when sold.

House for the Director of Economic Development, State of North Carolina

Neighborhood center on Merrimon Ave. in Asheville, NC. There was no need to turn on the furnaces until the outside temperature was under 21 degrees, F. This was the first building in Asheville to be constructed with splitface concrete blocks and a neoprene rubber roof.

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