HOUSTON — When OPEC barred oil exports to the United States in 1973, creating long gasoline lines, President Richard Nixon pledged an effort that would combine the spirit of the Apollo program and the determination of the Manhattan Project.
“By the end of this decade, we will have developed the potential to meet our own energy needs without depending on any foreign energy sources,” he said in a televised address.
His timing was off — it took more than 40 years — but the country has come pretty close to energy independence in recent years thanks to a surge in domestic shale oil and natural gas production and the harnessing of solar and wind energy.
That independence, however, is fragile. Last week, cars lined up at gas stations across much of the Southeast after the Colonial Pipeline was paralyzed by a cyberattack by a criminal group seeking a ransom. The electric grid is also coming under greater stress because of climate change. In the last year, a heat wave in California and a deep freeze in Texas forced rolling blackouts as demand for power outstripped supply.
panic buying rarely seen in decades produced shortages, and prices at the pump rose as much as 20 cents a gallon for regular gasoline in some states in a few days, according to AAA.
Mr. Yergin said that drivers who lined up at pumps to fill gas cans and even plastic bags made the situation worse. The impulse to hoard harkened back to the oil shocks of the 1970s and appeared to touch a chord in the national psyche.
“People remembered gas lines even though they weren’t born yet,” Mr. Yergin said.
Colonial Pipeline, a private company, resumed full operations over the weekend, but it will take at least several more days before many gas stations are restocked.
Energy companies will come under greater pressure from governments and investors to bulk up their defenses against cyberattacks, but those and other vulnerabilities will not be easily overcome, especially after years of underinvestment.
Upgrading the energy system will not be easy. Dozens of competing companies that operate a vast web of oil and gas wells and pumping stations, transmission lines and power plants will need coaxing to make their operations more resilient to weather and criminal attacks. Considerable funding will have to come from business and government, as well as research to keep ahead of the cybercriminals. President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan devotes $100 billion to the transmission grid.
The quest for energy independence has never been a straight line, and there have been many unfortunate twists. Reliance on Middle East oil was a major consideration in military action and diplomatic strategy, including alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia with disturbing human rights records. A half-century ago, the country shifted from burning heating oil to relying more heavily on coal, which contributed to climate change.
But the search for energy independence also led to innovation. Fracking — the hydraulic fracturing of shale oil and natural gas deposits — not only slashed energy imports but also made the United States a major exporter. Suddenly oil and gas were not a national security vulnerability but a tool to further American interests.