Can Gas Pumps Go Dry Again?

Will Americans ever face another crisis like the one in 1973 which led to long lines at the gas pumps? Some would tell you that technology has changed the picture, creating an environment in which that could never happen again. Others will say that's a far too optimistic view. CBS News correspondent Ray Brady has the details on Sunday Morning.

It's hard to believe the words "fill 'er up" could create a national crisis - hard to believe because gas and oil are plentiful now and cheap. But 25 years ago, during the Arab oil embargo, as Americans waited in long lines, they watched the pumps run dry.

Christmas at the White House found a government with its hands tied; President Nixon turned off the lights on the traditional Christmas tree to save energy. At many gas stations, there was simply a sign that read: "No Gas."

After 53 years at the pump, it was a time Anthony Russo will never forget. Russo owns a gas station in Providence, Rhode Island: "It was a total disaster. It was one of the most frustrating periods of my life," he recalls.

He remembers lines of cars stretching four to five blocks up the street - lining up to get gas.

A world away, Arab oil producers, angry that the United States had sided with Israel in their 1973 war, slapped on an embargo. No more oil for America. It was a devastating blow at the time because about a third of our supply came from foreign production. The country's national security and its industry as well were threatened. Predictions were that the US would run out of its own oil by the turn of the century.

Three years later, James Schlessinger, who had been defense secretary during the Arab oil embargo, was named the nation's first energy secretary at a time when OPEC, the organization of foreign oil producers, again slashed production, this time to raise prices. The long lines at the pumps came back.

"We felt that we were at the center of a maelstrom," says Schlessinger, adding, "The arrogance of the Gulf producers in those years was something to behold. Particularly the Kuwaitis who belatedly have come to appreciate the United States."

For Americans, one shocking fact stood out: our dominance as a producer of oil was over; it would be the stuff only of museum pieces - in a country where the oil industry was born, where the huge Spindletop gusher in Texas and those hard-working rigs around the turn of the century made the US the world's number one oil producer. All of that now seemed gone - our oil was drying up.

In April of 1977, President Carter said:
"Our factories will not be able to keep our people on the job with reduced supplies of fuel. Inflation will soar. Production will go down. People will lose their jobs. The oil and gas that we rely on for 75% of our energy are simply running out."

Those dire predictions didn't come tue. What changed? Schlessinger says:

"There are two fundamental changes: one, the security threat has gone away. The second change has been quite remarkable changes in production and supply conditions."

Texas oil men will tell you that technology saved the day - computers and other advances have completely changed the way engineers like Bob Peebler and B.N. Murali find oil.

One example, as Peebler points out, is a kind of industrial cat scan to search out oil:

"You have sound waves that go into the earth...and you get a much clearer view of where the oil is. And the clearer view you have of the subsurface, the more likely you can go find where to drill."

Not only that, drilling rigs now go far deeper and wider than they could 25 years ago, making it far cheaper to find oil.

Murali points out that technology has reduced costs in some circumstances, up to 80 percent. But those new hi-tech tools are also bring up more oil in the Middle East, in Mexico, Russia, and in brand new fields in Azerbaijan - so much oil, that it's broken OPEC's lock on the world oil market. But it also means we're depending on even more oil from other foreign countries.

Despite years of boosting the fuel efficiency of our cars, Americans are using 13% more gasoline than they did 25 years ago - which translates into good times for Anthony Russo:

"I'm doing double the business I did - maybe even triple the businessÂ…"

The US government spent $90 billion to cut down our dependence on foreign oil. So why are we using more oil than ever? Schlessinger responds:

"First, the public sense that this is a serious problem has disappeared. Secondly, oil prices are quite low. Thirdly, government policy has shifted so that we really don't have any teeth in policy to prevent growth of consumption."

back in those days, when we were so worried about our oil supplies, only 28% of our oil came from abroad. Today, it's 48%. Schlessinger sees that as worrisome in the long run:

"We're looking into a future in which 70% or more will come from abroad. It is a bad trend."

But oilmen still hold to their traditional wildcatters' optimism. Says Peebler:

"I have no doubts that technology saved the day. I have no doubts that technology is going to save the day 10 years from now. If we did not have the technology gains that we've had in the last 25 years, we would be probably out of oil and gas."

Anthony Russo says as far as he's concerned, "we depend too much on foreign oil."

Schlessinger would agree. Asked what he'd tell us to do today, if he were energy czar, he replied:
"I would say enjoy it while it's there. But, remember, we are going to see a change in the future." He adds, we haven't solved the energy problem:

"Because of the improvements in technology, we're obtaining oil and gas more clearly than we did and to a greater degree. But, by speeding up the production, it means ultimately limted supplies of oil and gas, (and) we will face a time when oil first and then gas is not available in the quantities that we demand."

This, adds Schlessinger, means our grandchildren will have to worry about the price of gas if automobiles are still dependent on gasoline 30 or 40 years out.

Anthony Russo is counting on that. He plans on leaving the family gas station to his grandchildren. Still, nobody can be sure that they and their children will not face more shortages.

©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed