Where were you ten years ago this fall? Like millions of Americans, you probably spent a fair amount of time waiting in line at your local service station that autumn - for an opportunity to buy a few gallons of gas that quickly shot up in price as much as four-fold over what fuel had cost a month or so earlier. It was in October, 1973 that nations belonging to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced a sharp increase in the price of oil - and followed that up with an embargo against the United States and the Netherlands for supporting Israel in a Mideast war.
From the fall of 1973 on, the world has never been quite the same. Given their ''oil leverage,'' Mideast Arab members of OPEC began to enjoy a clout in world affairs that they had not had up to that time, at least not in modern world history. Americans, meanwhile, were forced to alter their lifestyles. ''Downsizing'' (making cars, houses, and appliances smaller and more energy efficient) became commonplace, along with a new appreciation for ''conservation'' in general. In financial matters, hundreds of billions of Arab oil dollars - ''petrodollars,'' as they were called - were invested in US banks and the American stock market, leading in part to the huge bank loans to third-world nations of the late 1970s.
If the OPEC price hikes and the embargo have taught Americans any lesson, it is that they cannot be complacent about their energy habits. To do so would be costly. The benchmark price of a barrel of crude shot up from about $3 in 1973 to $34 by the end of 1981. With the OPEC price rollback of last March the cost is down, but only slightly in the longer pricing framework, to about $29 per barrel.
The price hikes and the embargo have also taught Americans that they must take all possible steps to avoid being held captive by any nation, or group of nations, such as OPEC. Americans, fortunately, have made significant efforts to reduce such a dependence. That freeing up has come about because of conservation efforts, partial deregulation of gas, decontrol of oil, development of alternative energy sources, as well as the coming on line of new oil sources in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. The US now burns 20 percent less oil than it did four years ago. Its oil imports, moreover, have dropped by some 45 percent since 1977. And the US buys more oil from non-OPEC producers than from OPEC.
Yet, much remains to be done. Indeed, a study released just this month - prepared by the Congressional Research Service - finds that the US is still vulnerable to a cutoff of oil from the Persian Gulf. Any major reduction in Mideast oil, such as from a Soviet invasion of Persian oilfields, sabotage by terrorists, or a flare-up in local conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war, could, according to the report, lead to ''sharp increases in the price of all oil supplies.''
Not all energy experts would agree with such a gloomy assessment. OPEC is now far more divided politically than was the case 10 years ago. Many experts question whether OPEC states would want to threaten their extensive financial holdings in Western nations. Moreover, total world production capacity is very high - on the order of 10 million barrels a day above current demand.
The crucial point, however, is that Americans would seem wise in never again allowing themselves to be put in a position of testing the impact of a new oil cutoff. That means that they must continue to use energy prudently. Conservation is essential. At the same time, they must remain firm about filling the Strategic Oil Reserve, which now holds about 350 million barrels of crude, roughly equal to a three months' supply of imports.
On the legislative front, Congress and the Reagan administration should seriously reconsider the wisdom of cutting back federal support in research dollars and seed monies to such fledgling energy industries as solar power. That does not mean that the US government should once again get into the business of funding entire industries, such as the synthetic fuel industry. But it does mean that the federal government has a legitimate role in encouraging energy research and fostering strict efficiency standards for appliances and cars.
With foresight and resolve, the US need never again have to go through a winter of '73.