WASHINGTON—Any country that indulges itself on roughly 25 percent of the world’s oil supply—at least 10 times more than it can lay claim to as its own—is in desperate need of a 12-step treatment program for addiction.
That diagnosis by longtime environmental justice champion Jerome Ringo has prompted him to back the severe oil diet rolled out by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., this week at the Center for American Progress.
“We are oil junkies,” Ringo told a Washington gathering Monday after Merkley rolled out a basic five-step proposal for solving this nation’s oil vulnerability. “And the drug dealers are countries who aren’t our friends who are driven by the profit motive.”
Ringo, in his new capacity as senior executive for global strategies at the privately operated Green Port, participated with two other energy experts in a post-Merkley forum moderated by Daniel Weiss, CAP’s director or climate strategy. The liberal think tank with close ties to the current White House provided the stage for the discussion titled “America Over a Barrel: Reducing Our Oil Dependence.”
“The first step is acknowledging that you have a problem,” said Ringo, who began his career working in Louisiana’s petrochemical industry and eventually became the first African American to lead the board at a major conservation organization, the National Wildlife Federation. “The Gulf spill is that problem.”
“We have lived through the decade of lost opportunity. Now we’re in the decade of last opportunity.”
Ringo is not only one impressed by Merkley’s 20-year oil-shedding plan. During this eighth week of the disaster in the Gulf—it has drawn considerable kudos from environmental organizations and energy analysts.
“He’s put together something that is fundamentally a sound plan,” Therese Langer, transportation program director with the independent nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, told Solve Climate in an interview. “It’s sensible and his proportions are right.”
Overall, the transportation sector is Merkley’s chief target. It is estimated that the United States will be importing about 7 million barrels per day by 2030, but by then, the senator figures the country can save at least 8.3 million barrels daily.
Close to 40 percent of that objective—3.2 million barrels daily—would come from tightening fuel economy for passenger cars and deploying electric vehicles.
The remainder would come from ramping up fuel economy for large trucks, adding natural gas and alternative fuels such as cellulosic ethanol to the mix, moving more freight via trains and barges, making ships, trains and airplanes more energy efficient, improving commuter options and reinventing much of the transportation infrastructure.
A small portion of his plan focuses on pushing buildings toward higher oil-use efficiency. Those reductions would amount to just 200,000 barrels daily.
Economics of Oil Askew in U.S.
"What some people don’t seem to grasp is that America can’t drill its way out of this oil deficit," said James Barrett, the chief economist with the Clean Economy Development Center. “Our infrastructure is built on a $20 barrel of oil,” explained Barrett, who participated in Monday’s CAP forum. “If we pretend we live in a country where oil is $20 a barrel, fine. But the rest of the world isn’t going to wait for us.”
At the very least, he pointed out, this country needs to move to a system that accommodates oil that costs $75 or $100 per barrel.
“The question is not how much it costs to get off oil,” Barrett said, “but how much we lose if we don’t do so.”
Langer, who did not participate in the CAP forum, agreed with Barrett’s math and perspective. The price of oil is set globally, she said, and people need to remember that everybody is competing for a fixed quantity of it.
20-Year Plan Logical and Doable
Langer categorized Merkley’s idea to shed 3.2 million barrels per day via aggressive electric vehicle deployment and improved passenger vehicle fuel economy as on target and doable.
Though Merkley said he initially wanted to accelerate his plan to a 10-year schedule, Langer said he is right to pace it over two decades, even if that seems molasses-like to frustrated clean energy advocates.
“If you are looking to make such dramatic changes, you need a long lead time,” said Langer, who has two decades of experience in transportation planning. “You have to set the standards high and give industry time to adapt. With fuel economy standards, industry needs time to develop technologies and get the technologies out in the marketplace.”
Generally, it takes 15 years for old vehicles to exit the roadways after new models with stricter fuel economy standards are introduced, she said.
The Obama administration’s newest gas mileage standards call for bumping up efficiency about 4 percent each year to reach the 35 miles per gallon standard by 2016. Merkley wants to nudge that efficiency back up to 6 or 7 percent annually—back to where it was after the oil shocks of the 1970s and the mid-decade birth of corporate average fuel economy standards. China, Merkley noted, is attempting to achieve 42.2 mpg by 2015.
Rounding out the senator’s automotive efficiency focus is the plan to electrify, hybridize and streamline medium- and heavy-duty vehicles such as tractor-trailers and delivery trucks and vans. An Environmental Protection Agency study concluded that medium-duty trucks, with a 9.7 mpg average today, could reach 15.8 mpg by 2030. Heavy-duty trucks could go from 6.5 mpg today to 10.4 mpg.