Freedom from Oil …
This is an agenda, an objective that all Americans should support. (Okay, maybe not some oil company CEOs …)
And, this is a good key agenda item for next President, to move past the current occupant of the Oval Office’s identification of our “oil addiction” to actual action to fight the addition.
And, this is the core concept for David Sandalow in his excellent Freedom From Oil: How the Next President can end the United States’ Oil Addiction. And, while not perfect, Sandalow’s roadmap merits consideration as we chart a path toward a better future.
A moment to explain the book. Sandalow, who served within the Clinton White House, has structured the book as a series of memos and notes from a President to his staff and cabinet, and back. The start: a Presidential memo calling for a major energy speech, to lay out a framework for freeing America (and the globe) from oil dependency. Memo by memo, background paper by background paper, the knowledge and consensus develops, disagreements are laid out. And, at the end of the game, the speech to the Joint Session of Congress laying out the President’s agenda for Freedom of Oil. This structure works well, with substantial endnote enabling follow-up on any issue of concern. The approach, on top of reading well, provides implicit insights on how rational governance can (should) work, clearly inisghts derived from Sandalow’s service in the Clinton White House.
An aside: life amid a plethora of half-read books
Now, before moving toward substance, a perspective on how I valued this book. Literally, unnumbered are the books that I’m reading at any one time, sneaking in a page here and there, moving from book to book. Other that Harry Potter or other escapes to better (or worse) realities, I very rarely read a book, cover-to-cover, without dallying to the pages of others of the 200+ open books. Well, Freedom from Oil is an exception to this pattern, read cover-to-cover without temptation to pursue a dalliance with another author. Both in structure and substance, Sandalow had my attention.
In the arena of substance
The title is Freedom from Oil, with the key point that oil is a key dependency.
If the orange crop fails and juice prices rise … you can switch to milk, soda, or water. But when it comes to oil, there are no widely available substitutes. If events in some distant land cause gasoline prices to rise, you have two choices — pay more or drive less.
And, our dependence is so great that “weaning ourselves from oil wil take a full generation.” Thus, the President who takes on freeing US from oil will not, by definition, see full success on their watch, but will be charting a course to be sailed by others.
A quick review of some recommendations:
- Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs): Use the government to spark the market, with a guarantee of at least 30,000 purchased each year. (With the White House setting the example with converting the armored Presidential limos to PHEL status.) And, very large tax credits to get the initial market moving.
- Serious research into cellulose ethanol and other biofuel options. And, paths to make these fuels available to all US drivers at the pump.
- Subsidizing US automaker transition to building efficient cars through paying for retiree health insurance.
- Research program into such areas as better batteries and otherwise.
A steadily gasoline tax, with substantial portions of the revenue sent as checks to America’s citizens in association with the Fourth of July.
Sandalow has some excellent ideas. One of which is to move away from CAFE standards to Fuel Reduction and Energy Efficiency (FREEdom) standards, with requirements based on weight and size, eliminating the now artificial differentiation between cars and SUVs.
Big Government and Oil
The book charts the internal dynamics of government discussion. At one point, the President questions whether his concepts are too “big government”, with too much interference in the economy. The Secretary of the Energy responds with a memo that highlights that the US government has long been interfering in the economy, that “Oil’s dominance as a transportation fuel is the result of decades of help from “big government.”" Including, of course, the military activities in the Persian Gulf era. Thus, the choice is not between government involvement or not, but between how the government will interfere.
Some basic learning
Well, to be honest, amid America’s energy illiteracy, I’m probably a little bit more functionally literate than most. And, well, Sandalow has improved that literacy. Some points that I should have known …
- While a gallon of gasoline, when burned, creates 20 pounds of Co2, this doesn’t count all the production pollution, which adds another 25% to the total. Thus, every gallon of gas you burn in your car equates to 25 (not 20) pounds of additional Co2 in the atmosphere.
- South Africa’s coal-to-liquid plant is the “largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in the world”. (Hmmm … something to think about coal-to-liquid advocates?)
- Moving to 50% of America’s cars to PHEVs would increase electricity demands by only 4-7%, easily accommodated within today’s peak / off-peak power imbalances.
- With ethanol’s demands on corn crops, the increased prices of corn have meant that decreasing farm subsidy payments have been more than double the cost of ethanol subsidies.
[Note: corn ethanol is not something that I strongly support. And, ethanol demands are eating up 20% of America's corn crop. Plans on the Hill right now for a five-fold increase in ethanol imply, well, going to 100% of the crop.]
In other words, in addition to giving a window to White House decision-making processes (in a rational administration) and laying out a case for a path to Freedom from Oil, this book also educates.
Is the course fully charted?
Sandalow has produced a real contribution to the discussion of America’s energy challenges and options for the better. His charted course, however, is not one to follow blindly.
- This work, explicitly, focuses on oil. Freedom from Oil dependency is truly a laudable and meaningful goal. It is something to pursue. Oil, however, is only a part of the overall energy situation. A focus on solely the oil situation (as critical as this is) can create a stove-piping that can leave things on the side, unaddressed, or even exascerbated.
- For example, when discussing the critical value of Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), Sandalow talks to the electricity grid and how even 100% coal-fired electricity used in a PHEV creates less CO2 than a gasoline powered vehicle. With the focus on oil, however, he misses the opportunity to explore robustly PHEVs potential for facilitating massive renewable energy penetration into electricity markets nor to discuss the criticality of US (and other nations’) investment in creating a smart(er) grid to gain full value from the PHEVs for a more robust energy future and more efficient (less polluting) electricity system.
- Staying with PHEVs, Sandalow discusses only cars (and, well, the Presidential limos). There is no discussion of the high-payoff potential for, for example, plugging in America’s school buses. Just PHEBs would cut the equivalent of 1/2 of one day’s oil use. Not a silver bullet solution, but a nice piece of silver buckshot.
- When it comes to coal, there is no discussion of the costs of, for example, mountain-top removal, carbon capture and sequestration, and many other quite important issues.
In other words, perhaps I regret that Sandalow has focused on the catchy Freedom from Oil dependency when what we truly require is Freedom from Fossil Fuel dependencies.
In addition, as a side note, I find Sandalow’s call for a few billions dollars of energy research and development (R&D) simply inadequate and don’t think Sandalow has strongly enough discussed economic wins that will come from Freedom of Oil.
Hold it a second
Let me make clear, this is a book to read. It is one that I would hope is read by every Presidential candidate and their staffs. It should be on the reading list on the Hill, in editorial offices, in university course on governance, and elsewhere. Sandalow has, in my opinion, done an excellent job of making a highly complex arena approachable by all while maintaining a quality that keeps expert engaged. This is a work meriting the time with all concerned about finding paths to Energize America toward a Prosperous, Climate Friendly Society.