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Destroying the Gulf for what? Better paths forward …

May 1st, 2010 · 2 Comments

During the 2008 campaign, a Palin-McCain Michigan ad had this line:

“Offshore drilling to reduce the price of gas to spur truck sales.”

How many times does it need to be said? Offshore drilling is, at best, a 1 cent, 1 percent solution 20 years off to the question of gasoline prices. According to Department of Energy analysis, offshore drilling would:

  1. Lead to a 1.2 cent reduction in gasoline prices.
  2. Provide 1 percent of today’s US oil demand and 0.25 percent of global demand (about 200,000 barrels per day of production compared to 20 million barrels/day of US demand and global demand (over 80 million barrels / day)
  3. Do this by 2030 …

Yes, a 1 cent, 1 percent solution, 20 years from now would “spur truck sales”.

And, of course, without risk because (as BP told us) offshore drilling is safe and clean …
There is a better way.

Shortly after President Obama’s election, Joe Trippi put out Letter from a friend: Cars, Oil, Entombing the Future, and Reform. Amid much good material pointing to the ‘end of cheap oil’ and the need to use the current economic crisis as an opportunity to restructure the economy away from oil and resource devastation, is this comment:

Secondly, the majority of so-called Keynesian pump-priming, should be spent not on the parts of America’s present infrastructure that are unsustainable, but in transforming it to be much less energy and resource wasteful.


Hear! HEAR! HEAR!!!!

Definitely agree that priming the pump should focus on creating tomorrow’s infrastructure, on turning the tide to something better rather than trying to protect dinosaurs.

But these are the words that follow:

America should make a goal of cutting its oil use by 50% in five years …

With that, my mind felt like it hit a brick wall. Huh? While I might laud this in my fantasy dreams, the only paths that I see to achieving such a reduction within five years all involve scenarios that I would prefer for you, me, my and your children not to live through. How about peak oil really hitting hard, with production levels falling off the chart leading to massive disruption in global trade, agricultural processes, etc …? No, “50% in five years”? Laudable but laughable.

What comes next?

spending money to evolve more walkable, bikeable, and transit oriented communities.

“Evolve …” Does anyone think that we can “evolve” our communities over a five-year period to achieve any serious element of a 50 percent reduction?

Even with a great deal of focus on energy issues, I simply am not sure how we can get down to fifty percent of today’s oil use within five years.

But … watching oil spills …

Emphasizes that we must be driving down our addiction, taking actions every day, every week, every month, every year — on a constant basis — to reduce our oil dependencies. Everything from cutting use to plastics, to ensuring that our tires are inflated, to riding bikes for grocery shopping (carrying a cloth bag), to choosing our places to live based on transportation demands, to insulated oil-heated buildings (and converting away from oil burning), to electrification of rail, to …

Thus to a plan …

Off the top of the head, let’s do some thinking about what is possible as this issue is about how much of a cut is possible, within reason, in that five-year time period not on the path that we should follow.

A rough cut at the near term …

So, if we are going to be serious about reducing our oil dependencies, to reduce the risks of yet another massive dump of oil into our ecosystem, what are some elements that could have impact in the near term that would contribute meaningfully to reduced oil use within that five years.

Here are some thoughts / items:

  • Foster greater technical efficiency in today’s / existing cars (properly inflated tires, clean air filters, weight out of trunks, etc): 10% savings or roughly 1 million barrels/day. At what cost to the taxpayer? Perhaps a few $100s of millions (let’s round off to $1 billion) for an education campaign and, for example, to help subsidize air pump operations at gas stations and put air pumps at toll booths and rest stops across the nation.
  • Get feedback systems (such as a kiwi) into all existing 1996-on cars: This will foster about 10% savings due to changed driving behaviors (while lowering life lose, crashes, etc). Benefit of roughly another million barrels per day in reduced demand. Total Federal cost, assuming that 100% of cost goes to the taxpayer, in the range of $20 billion dollars. (Note: equals impact of subsidizing natural gas in transportation at, roughly, 1/10th the cost and faster impact.]
  • Tax and other policy initiatives to foster ever more telecommuting / flexible office schedules. A worker on a 9/80 drives to the job 10% less. Flexible scheduling enables people to travel outside rush hours, saving time and gasoline. A telecommuter might reduce work related driving by 100%. As a start, 100% of Democratic Party offices on Capital Hill should strive to reduce their office’s daily commuting footprint by 10%, with an additional 10% on flexible hours putting their travel outside traditional rush hour periods. Due to reduced mileage and reduced congestion, perhaps another 1 million barrels/day in savings. Cost to taxpayer? Perhaps $5 billion / year in incentives.
  • Tax / other support for car pooling, public transport: perhaps able to support another 1 million barrels/day in terms of reductions. Cost? How about $10 billion / year?
  • A smorgasbord of other items: Conversion of existing home heating oil and increased efficiency in oil burning for heating / such: Perhaps 80,000 barrels/day (or so) improvement potential within two years. Regulations/otherwise to reduce truck idling (50,000 barrels/day); air traffic control management improvement (50 barrels/day). Mandating fuel efficient car tires and car tire replacements, alone, could save about 270,000 barrels per day.
    Etc … Total savings, perhaps 500,000 barrels/day by 2013. Cost? Perhaps $2 billion/year, with full weatherization of heating oil homes half paid for by the federal government.
  • Reduce plastics demand — putting a nation-wide 25 cents cost to plastic bags at stores would essentially eliminate them and could cut demand by about two-days of US oil use almost overnight. (No reason not to do this yourself … now!)
  • Increase assistance to home and urban farming — reducing food miles (can) lead to reduced petroleum use.
  • Etc ….

There are other things to help achieve oil reduction that might not be so easy or might not be worth the same near-term emphasis, such as increased ‘renewable fuels’ (but do we really want to be talking about ethanol) and imposing the double-nickel (55 mph speed limit) which would be a massive political battle (though, perhaps a concerted effort can develop that will — on the other hand, the terror of driving 65 mph in a 65 mph zone while truckers barrel up at 80 mph …)

But, let’s recap where we are with the points above: roughly 4.5 million barrels / day in reduced US oil demand (or between 20 and 25 percent) by 2014. Cost to taxpayer: perhaps $66 billion total over five years. Whoa, horsey, that’s a huge number.

Note that we’ve done this before, as we had about a 25 percent drop in oil consumption from 1979 through 1982. This time around, we shouldn’t stop with 25 percent and we can’t afford (on so many levels) to allow the usage curve to go back the wrong way.

Let’s look at this another way:

  • 4.5 million barrels / day
  • at $50 per barrel
  • translate to $225 million per day not leaving the United States to buy imported oil.
  • That is $82 billion per year in money that stays in the United States … per year.

Going beyond 25%

The above seem to be things that could have major impact within the next several years. These serve to foster perhaps a 20-25% cut in US oil demand, without other conservation/technologies, within the coming 2-5 years. To get beyond these ‘relatively low hanging fruit’ options require more serious investment, from smart growth to more rail/public transport to higher fuel efficiency in vehicles/electrification of cars. That investment can start kicking in quickly but the impact is incremental and unlikely to have millions of barrels per day in impact.

For example, electrification of rail over the next decade will foster a direct reduction of oil use of 250,000 barrels per day due to conversion of diesel engines. It opens up the potential for 2+ million barrels per day of converting truck transport to rail and increased passenger movement on rail. But, the impact of electrification of rail on petroleum use in the next five years would be relatively neglible in the face of 50 percent reduction target.

Electrification also provides a path for getting much of America’s trucks, buses, cars off gasoline (or at least reducing that demand). (Please note, electification of transport can occur even as we break America’s coal addiction and eliminate coal from the electricity equation.) With just $50 million per year, we could spark Plug-In Hybrid Electric School Buses, starting immediately, as the new standard for school bus purchases, halving their use of liquid fuels and reducing the health impacts to America’s youth from school bus diesel fumes.

The Federal government, under President Obama, is taking a leadership position with quite serious targets for reduced oil use and targets for introducing alternative fuel vehicles (including electric cars). And, there are the substantial tax credits for individuals and businesses for purchase of EVs and PHEVs.

The funding for the Smart Grid, with V2G (vehicle to grid) research and development, which will enable this transportation electricity to come from the grid more efficiently and enable greater penetration of renewable power is a critical enabler of electrification of transport. (Note that this relates back to electrification of rail, as the rail right-of-ways can be used for a new HVDC backbone to move renewable electricity efficiently across the nation.)

Moving off fossil fuels is not only electricity. Electricity provides flexibility in options, but other options exist. Standards should mandate that all vehicles with liquid fuel be either GEM flex-fuel (100% of all gasoline like fuels (ethanol, methanol, gasoline) can be used) or diesel flex fuel (from 0% to 100% biodiesel).

For further fuel efficiency, there should be a near-term mandate that 100% of new vehicles (of all types) provide real time and longer term feedback to driver as to gallons per mile / fuel efficiency.

We should apply resources for improving traffic management throughout America to help reduce fuel demands.

Of course, we should be investing in the deployment of renewable energy resources.

For homes, something like Architecture2030 should be made national policy, a national standard, to drive down, on a constant basis, the energy requirement for America’s building infrastructure. (And, this feeds back directly to oil — due to oil-heating of homes.)

And, across the board, energy efficiency and renewable energy should receive greater research and development resources and prioritization.

And, we must move toward more sensible development concepts / practices (“smart growth”), integrating walkable lives and public transit/rail as a core part of that development so that the necessity for vehicle miles drops with each passing year.

And, so on … (For some great thinking on this, see: Winning the Oil Endgame.)

Now … there is “conservation” and the potential to go far beyond the type of things outlined above. But, I am highly skeptical that such strong measures are possible.

Back to 50%

Cutting US oil use by 50% is absolutely achievable, but not likely within five years.

By 2020? Possibly. Even probably if we choose to do so …

And, we should not stop with 50%.

NOTE: All of the figures above are off-the-top-of-the-head ballpark figures, but they are roughly in range of what is achievable. And, a version of the above appeared on 12 Nov 2008 as Shaving away at the oil addiction. There has been progress since then, such as the CAFE standards for improving fuel efficiency. We must, however, go much further than shaving at the edges.

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