It is accepted that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a cartel that restrains oil production and keeps prices higher than they would otherwise be. Indeed, this is the premise behind the “OPEC Accountability Act of 2018” in the US Senate. This bill would address high and rising oil prices by trying to break OPEC. US pressure on OPEC — particularly on friendly governments such as Saudi Arabia that are seen as leaders in the organization — to “open the spigots” is not new. Nor is the control of oil exports by producing countries for political purposes. However, the environmental impact of high oil prices is only lightly considered.
There is little debate that motor vehicle industry changes to increase fuel efficiency were a historic and significant environmental advance. When OPEC action has led to increased prices, the quantity of oil in demand has fallen. This was starkly demonstrated when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) — founded in 1968 — flexed its price-making muscles in the 1970s. Production cuts and an embargo against sale of oil to several countries raised the spot price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude from $3.56 per barrel in mid-1973 to $4.31 later in the year to $10.11 in January. By the time President Jimmy Carter famously suggested we all turn down our thermostats, the price of WTI crude had reached $14.85 per barrel. The price finally peaked in mid-1980 at $39.50 — a 1000 percent increase in seven years. The price of gasoline more than tripled. In response, we got the Department of Energy, the Chevy Citation, and more fuel-efficient Japanese and German automobile imports.
More recently, the total vehicle miles traveled in the US fell in 2007 amid high oil prices and the Great Recession, and did not increase again until gas prices fell over the second half of 2014 ― from $3.69 per gallon to $2.12.
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