JAMES E. AKINS, 83

James Akins, 83, dies; energy expert presaged danger of relying on Mideast oil

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, left, King Faisal of Saudia Arabia and U.S. Ambassador James Akins met in 1975 at the king's palace at Riyadh. Akins was fired by Kissinger the same year.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, left, King Faisal of Saudia Arabia and U.S. Ambassador James Akins met in 1975 at the king's palace at Riyadh. Akins was fired by Kissinger the same year. (Nash/associated Press)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

James E. Akins, 83, who as the State Department's chief energy expert in the early 1970s controversially predicted that growing U.S. dependence on Middle East oil gravely threatened the national economy and was vindicated when nearly all of his predictions came true, starting with the 1973 Arab oil embargo, died July 15 at his home in Mitchellville after a heart attack.

Mr. Akins, an austere Foreign Service officer whose Middle East experience included postings in the oil-rich countries of Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait and Iraq, served as the director of the State Department's Office of Fuels and Energy from 1967 to 1973.

He then served two years as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia before Secretary of State Henry Kissinger fired him because of disagreements over policy and Mr. Akins's admittedly outspoken style.

"Mr. Akins," an oil executive once said, "was Mr. Oil in the State Department for a long time. When any thinking needed to be done about oil, it was Akins who did the thinking."

In 1970, Mr. Akins wrote a classified report in which he concluded that by 1980 half of U.S. oil would be imported, and two-thirds of those imports would originate in the Eastern Hemisphere. He also forecast that the price of imported oil would rise to $5 a barrel by 1980 -- more than double the price at that time.

To counter the impending energy crisis, Mr. Akins suggested that the United States act to reduce the growth rate of oil consumption and increase domestic production.

In 1972, he was appointed President Richard M. Nixon's oil adviser, and Mr. Akins proposed a gasoline tax, expanding the use of coal and increasing research and development funding to explore the feasibility of synthetic fuel sources.

Above all, Mr. Akins implored in his reports, the United States should quickly take whatever measures necessary to curb oil usage and begin staunch conservation efforts, even though such efforts would "be as unpopular as they will be costly."

According to Daniel Yergin's definitive 1991 book about the energy industry, "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power," Nixon's top domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, told Mr. Akins, "Conservation is not the Republican ethic."

Undeterred, Mr. Akins decided to take his argument public. He wrote an article, based on his reports to the State Department and Nixon, titled "The Oil Crisis: This Time the Wolf is Here," that appeared in the April 1973 issue of Foreign Affairs.

Critics called the piece "alarmist" and said Mr. Akins was underestimating the world's surplus of oil and overestimating the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries' control of the international oil economy.

"My feeling was that the price would go up and the U.S. should recognize it and plan accordingly," Mr. Akins told Forbes magazine in 1976.


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