In what will likely be one of the few truly bipartisan energy actions we’ll see this year, Democratic and Republican Senators are likely to join arms tomorrow in passing the New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011. Tomorrow’s vote, if it passes the bill, will send $10s of billions in subsidies to natural gas vehicles when there are more cost effective paths to improve the economy, reduce our oil demands, improve the safety and efficiency of American transportation, and help address our climate change challenges.
The legislation will enact multiple high-cost subsidies for natural gas transportation systems. Sadly, these subsidies have not been compared with other options using any number of viable and reasonable metrics which include
- Cost to the taxpayer per reduced ton of carbon dioxide pollution;
- Cost to the taxpayer for reduced mortality (e.g., cost per avoided premature death);
- Cost to the taxpayer to reduce per barrel of reduced U.S. daily oil demand.
Let’s take that last one for a quick ride …
While the proposal to support natural gas in transportation with (massive) federal subsidies should (could) be examined against a vast array of potential options to reduce oil demand (here, pdf) from subsidizing telecommuting to mandating smart growth to promoting bicycling (such as via greenways) to alternative fuel development, let us just briefly consider three options:
- Natural gas for truck transport;
- Electrification of rail; and,
- Installing dashboard feedback systems in all automobiles.
- Natural Gas for Truck Transport: $75k per barrel cut from daily oil demand + additional costs for natural gas + additional costs of refueling infrastructure + the cost of the alternative fuels’ credit + pollution impacts of drilling and natural gas burning + …
- Electrification of rail: $36k per barrel/day cut from oil use w/other benefits
- Feedback systems in cars: $10k per barrel cut from daily oil demand w/other benefits
To place these in consideration:
- Electrification of rail has the potential for reducing oil demand by some 2.5 million barrels a day by 2020, some 15 years faster than the 1.23 million barrels a day reduction that a Center for American Progress (CAP) report projects for that converting trucks to natural gas would achieve by 2035. Electrification of rail would, as well, significantly cut actual carbon emissions rather than simply lead to a reduction in carbon intensity per mile driven. It would also improve safety and reduce highway infrastructure costs due to reducing, significantly, the number of truck miles on America’s highways.
- Putting feedback systems in America’s car fleet is a program that could be executed in just a few years and could contribute to a reduction in US oil demand by some 1 million barrels per day. This would also foster actual carbon emissions and would improve safety (reduced highway fatalities, reduced accidents, reduced insurance costs, …) as feedback systems lead to safer driving habits. (Note: feedback systems in commercial fleets also contribute to improving fuel efficiency and vehicle safety though that benefit is not included in this figure.)
Let’s look at this a different way? What could $10 billion of Federal funding “buy” on each of these three paths?
- Natural Gas Transportation: Converting about 160,000 trucks to natural gas at the proposed $65,000 tax credit or less than ten percent of the nation’s tractor trailors. This would enable roughly 100,000 barrels a day in reduced demand or in the range of $100,000 Federal investment per barrel of reduced daily demand.
- Electrification of Rail: Roughly 10% of the total required Federal resources to transition 35,000 of America’s rail (the key rail lines) from diesel to electric while upgrading the lines for (somewhat) faster and more efficient service of both cargo and passenger uses. E.g, in the range of $40,000 of taxpayer investment per barrel of daily reduced demand.
- Feedback systems in cars: Fully funding a program to put feedback systems in 100% of America’s (post-1996) light vehicle fleet and could be done in a few years resulting in somewhere between 500,000 to 1,000,000 reduction in daily US oil demand … again, by 2015 or sooner. At that lower figure, occuring years earlier than NGV systems would have such impact, about $10-$20,000 of taxpayer investment per barrel of reduced daily demand.
Very simply, the natural gas option is higher cost, lower impact in reducing oil demand, takes longer to achieve its impact, and results in higher carbon emissions than these two other options. And, again, there are many, many other options out there that also look to be lower cost and higher positive impact across multiple domains than pursuing a “clean natural gas” transportation future. Here are just a few of the pathways for reducing America’s dependence on oil:
- A Steel Interstate of Electrified Rail (with moving significant cargo off trucks onto electrified rail), high-speed rail, and various electrified public transit (subways, trams, etc);
- Greenways(and bicycles) and other ‘local’ individual transportation options;
- ‘Location efficiency’ in mortgage financing
- Home heating oil efficiency;
- Requirement for a flex-fuel standard for all future light-duty vehicles;
- Telecommuting, alternative work schedules, and other paths to enhance the work eperience for a good portion of Americans while cutting oil demand.
- Etc …
The list of viable paths that are better than providing massive fossil foolish subsidies to natural gas vehicles to address U.S. oil demand, improve the economy, improve Americans’ health, reduce pollution loads (including greenhouse gas emissions), and otherwise achieve positive results for America and Americans can go on and on and …
While the failure to drive through the Keystone XL pipeline (which would raise gasoline prices in the Midwest while opening the doors for accelerated exploitation of highly polluting tar sands) has received merited praise, passage of the natural gas vehicle subsidies is not something to greet warmly.
Some relevant posts: