The U.S. Senate looks on track to take one measure in the post-election, lame-duck Congressional session to address the most serious challenges of our oil addiction and our heavy carbon footprint. This will be, as I understand it, an effort to fast track a piece of legislation introduced by Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid: S. 3815: Promoting Natural Gas and Electric Vehicles Act of 2010.
Let us be clear, the idea that the Senate (and Congress) might actually fast-track something to deal with America’s addiction to oil is — on the face of it, a good thing. Even if we didn’t face the looming prospects of future economic shocks and security risks due to Peak Oil colliding with increasing demand, the fact that a significant portion of America’s trade deficit is going to put oil in our McSUVs (that we drive to Wal-Mart to buy Chinese-made products) is something that should be on the top of Congress’ agenda for addressing with serious and meaningful legislation.
While perhaps developed with lofty intentions, moving past bumper stickers shows that this legislation would not provide any serious movement forward to end America’s fossil-fuelish (e.g, foolish) energy system and likely would end up being counter-productive to movement forward toward a sustainable energy future.
S-3815 has three sections:
- Promotion of natural gas vehicles (NGVs)
- Promotion of electric vehicles
- Stating that “the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund financing rate is 21 cents a barrel.’”
Perhaps due to Harry Reid’s blossomed friendship with T.Boone Pickens, section 1 is a full-blown endorsement of Pickens’ call for using natural gas in the transportation system. This section would, immediately, appropriate $3.8 billion for rebates to NGV buyers (with rebate levels higher than that provided for electric vehicles), $500 million in subsidies to manufacture NGV vehicles. In total, about $4.5 billion in new appropropriations to support significant investment in moving American transportation from one fossil-foolish addiction (oil) to another fossil-foolish path (natural gas).
While there might be a role, in limited circumstances, for increased use of natural gas in the American transportation system, the case for extensive natural gas transportation is shaky, at best:
- To reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil, there are far more cost-effective and more rapid paths to reducing oil dependency (such as putting real-time mpg feedback devices on car dashboards). Per barrel/day reduction of US oil demand, subsidizing NGVs in this way looks to be many times more expensive than other, existing, options.
- While shale natural gas looks to have radically increased America’s natural gas reserves, there are increasing questions about how much natural gas it truly opens up, the costs for exploiting shale natural gas, and the environmental impact of massive shale gas exploitation.
- While this reduces most dangerous tail-pipe emissions, the overall environmental improvement achieved by switching from oil to natural gas is unclear. The CO2 (greenhouse gas) emissions reductions are marginal (and potentially non-existent) while the environmental damage from shale natural gas exploitation is serious. (E.g., this $4.5 billion would do little to address climate change.)
- This simply moves US transportation dependency from one non-renewable polluting fossil fuel to another, potentially, slightly less polluting fossil fuel. Yes, it would reduce US imports — at least for awhile — but do so at a high fiscal and environmental cost.
- This path increases demand on a valuable fossil fuel, natural gas, which will increase prices for other uses (home heating, industrial use, electricity generation (especially partnered with intermittent renewable energy sources, etc). And, even with shale natural gas exploitation, it is a non-renewable resource that will thus get used up faster and won’t be available for these other uses.
All-in-all, putting $4.5 billion (borrowed from the Chinese) is perhaps best described, in terms of fostering a clean-energy future, as a step to the side rather than a step forward. If there were, as is likely appropriate, $1-2 trillion of new funding into the energy arena, this $4.5 billion might be beneath notice. But an adequate program isn’t on any legislative radar scope, at the moment, and this $4.5B comes at the expense of far better measures that would actually represent steps forward to a more prosperous and climate-friendly society.
Now, section 2 is actually longer, with more subsections, which makes it seem more impressive perhaps on the initial read. And, there is $1.515 billion targeted for DOE efforts on Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) research and development. That impressive figure, however, merits a review. That is $1.5 billion over ten years, just $150 million per year. It is, as well, an “authorization” rather than an “appropriatinon”. In other words, unlike the $4.5 billion for NGVs in Title 1, this gives permission for Committees to appropriate funds for PHEVs but doesn’t mandate that funding. Looked at in isolation from Title 1, Title 2 doesn’t look so bad except that it is far smaller than make sense in terms of fostering a shift toward electrification of American transportation (and, of course, has nothing re electrification of rail).
Putting section three aside, how should we summarize this piece of legislation that the Senate Majority leader plans to fast-track through the Senate after the election?
- Natural gas gets $4.5 billion in real money to foster a different fossil foolish addiction with an inefficient path toward cutting our oil demand.
- Electricity gets nice words — lots and lots of nice words — and a bit of fictitious money with nothing serious in the real world.
- Other alternatives to cutting oil demand (better traffic management, feedback systems on car dashboards, advanced biofuels and other alternative fuels, electrification of railroads, etc …) don’t even get platitudes or, more importantly, the regulatory steps (such as requiring all vehicles to be flex-fuel or else have a penalty applied on their sales price) that could help them move forward.
All in all, a lame excuse for lame-duck legislation.