The day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Saudi Arabia began rushing 9-million barrels of oil to the U.S. using its own tanker fleet. To do this, the Saudis abandoned the reductions in oil production they'd promised OPEC, bringing the price of oil down to $20 a barrel from $28.
That might not sound like a big deal, but it prevented economic disaster for the U.S. and the world. Mired as we were in a recession, high fuel prices would have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. For truckers, 2001 was already turning out to be a bad year: insurance premiums were going through the roof while freight volumes and used-truck values were falling through the floor. The drop in the diesel fuel prices saved the day.
As it was, in fact, about 4,000 trucking companies went out of business in 2001 — double the average annual rate over the last 15 years. Can you imagine what might have happened if diesel prices had gone up?
Which brings me back to Saudi Arabia and our nation's addiction to oil. Let's face it: Oil is trucking's and the nation's jugular, and we've been exposing it to oil-producing countries more and more every year. What's so galling about this is that we know exactly what it leads to. Saudi Arabia led the 1973 oil embargo against the U.S. — in retaliation for our support of Israel during the Yom Kippur war-that created serious shortages. And at that time, we imported just 36% of our oil. We now import 54% of our oil, a number that's expected to rise to 64% by 2010.
This situation would be laughable if it wasn't so deadly serious. When OPEC managed to impose production cuts on members and non-members alike in 1999, the price of oil shot up from $10 a barrel to $35 a barrel in less than six months. The price of diesel went from 90 cents/gal. to over $2/gal. on average, hitting $3/gal. in the Northeast as a cold snap forced refineries to make heating oil instead of diesel.
Since this embargo, the U.S. has struggled to come up with an energy policy to reduce our need for oil. And we've failed miserably. In 1973, petroleum provided about 99.5% of the fuel stocks used by the nation's transportation infrastructure; in three decades, we managed only to bring that down to 97%. Transportation as a whole — cars, trucks, planes, ships, etc. — consumes 70% of the country's daily oil intake. And that shows no sign of changing.
While commercial trucks have made great strides in fuel efficiency, most of those gains have been lost on the consumer side of the equation. Fuel-guzzling sports cars, pickups and SUVs have boosted the nation's consumption of oil dramatically. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, today's light trucks and SUVs have the fuel efficiency of a 1979 car.
Even programs designed to foster higher use of alternative-fueled vehicles haven fallen flat. The Energy Policy Act of 1991, for example — which mandates that 90% of the light trucks purchased by government and public utility fleets be powered by alternative fuels — specifically forbids them to use gasoline-electric or diesel-electric hybrids, though they've proven to be one of the best ways to reduce overall fuel consumption. Only recently have energy policy initiatives promoted hybrid vehicles, especially light-truck hybrid designs. But it's taken us 11 years to get prototypes off the ground.
In the meantime, our reliance on foreign oil continues to grow dramatically. We must do something now to reduce oil consumption. Because the next time around, Saudi Arabia may not be so willing to bail us out.