The United States could "feasibly" cut its foreign oil imports to zero by 2030, Sen. Jeff Merkley said today in an ambitious new proposal to solve the nation’s energy vulnerability.
During a packed forum at the non-profit Center for American Progress, Merkley (D-Ore.) said the U.S. can get off of overseas oil completely through massive electric vehicle deployment, fuel efficiency measures for trucks, a push towared natural gas- and biofuel-powered cars and a green building boost.
"We need to end our addiction to overseas oil. It’s smart policy. It’s smart politics. It’s time to adopt the plan."
With unprecedented amounts of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico and mid-term elections around the corner, an optimistic Merkley said his 14-page proposal is "absolutely" politically realistic.
"Show me a member of Congress who would campaign for office saying we need to increase our dependence on Middle East oil … [and] increase our oil addiction? I don’t think you would find very many such candidates who would be successful," Merkley said.
According to the senator, overseas oil imports are projected to reach about 7 million barrels per day in 20 years. His plan would save the nation 8.3 million barrels each day, with electric vehicles making up nearly 40 percent of that daily impact at 3.2 million barrels.
More efficient trucks would save 2 million barrels per day. So-called "smart traffic management," which includes eliminating parking subsidies, implementing pay-as-you-drive insurance and encouraging telecommuting, would save 1.75 million barrels. A shift toward more cars powered from natural gas and sustainable biofuels would conserve just over one million barrels per day under the Merkley plan. And greener buildings would make up the rest, around .2 million barrels.
"Buildings play a little part because we’re talking here about fuel being burned and not that many buildings use diesel heating oil to heat and so it’s a small piece," he said.
For electric vehicles, at least, legislation is ready for a vote, Merkley said.
In May, he co-sponsored a bi-partisan bill with Sens. Senators Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) that encourages the purchase of battery-powered cars and builds up to 15 pilot "deployment communities" nationwide with charging infrastructure. Reps. Ed Markey (R-Mass.), Jerry McNerney, (D-Ca.) and Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) introduced a nearly identical bill in the House. Both plans aim to electrify half of all U.S. cars and trucks by 2030.
To drive his plan to get America off oil, Merkley is calling for a National Energy Security Council to "not only to help design and propose legislation but guide and drive implementation." The council would be charged with making recommendations to the president and Congress "to ensure America stays on track."
This is where the Merkley plan "goes a step further" than similar proposals, he said.
The proposal comes on day 56 of the calamitous Gulf of Mexico oil spill that has become the biggest environmental catastrophe in the country’s history.
"The unfolding disaster is a tragic reminder of the human, economic, public health and environmental costs of oil dependence," said Winnie Stachelberg, a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress, during the forum.
"While it certainly helps to have an administration that has demonstrated strong leadership on these through rapid response and inter-agency coordination, this is not enough, nor is trying to clean up an oil spill or plug the leak enough. Rather, we must transition to a clean energy economy to get our country off of our dirty, dangerous addiction to oil."
The U.S. spends a billion dollars a day on imported oil, about $3 dollars a day for every American. The nation boasts three percent of the world’s oil reserves and uses 25 percent of the world’s oil.
"Certainly that has an economic impact. When those dollars leave our nation they do not stay here and reverberate and pass through our grocery stores and our retail outfits, creating jobs here in America," said Merkley.
Merkley, who recently returned from the Gulf said of the spill:
"What we’re seeing right now is just the tip of the iceberg, a little tiny bit of that oil slick has reached Louisiana. But if there is a major storm, you are going to see such an environmental disaster along hundreds of miles of America’s coastline."
Gulf Crisis Spurns Big Ideas, Still Little Action
As public anger over the out-of-control crisis mounts, there has been a flurry of activity in Washington to reduce the damage from it. There are congressional hearings and proposed bills on everything from increasing the liability cap for spills to closing corporate loopholes related to drilling and cleaner energy deployment. The White House has so far taken small steps to begin to rethink domestic drilling.
President Obama declared a six-month moratorium on drilling new deep-water wells and appointed a presidential commission to reevaluate safety regulations and other federal oversight. Prior to that, the feds announced they would break up the embattled Minerals Management Service into three separate divisions to improve its lax regulation over offshore oil drilling.
For the time being in Congress, the spill promises to dominate the legislative agenda.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced plans to pass energy legislation this summer that includes policies to address the Gulf disaster. On June 3, he sent a letter to eight committee chairmen that have jurisdiction over some piece of federal energy policy, asking them to submit recommendations before the July 4 recess on what should be included in the bill.
"Among the actions I think we need to explore are ensuring that the oil companies’ are held accountable for their actions and the damages caused by their operations," Reid wrote. "This may require adjusting current law to more accurately assess and address the damages caused by failures, to ensure the swift and fair compensation of people and communities for their oil pollution related losses, and to update relevant criminal and civil penalty structures."
Meanwhile, among the many hearings that Congress has already held on the spill, the most anticipated are coming this week. Five major oil CEOs from BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Chevron, will testify before the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, for what Politico dubbed a "tobacco-exec-style group photo and a tough inquisition." BP’s beleaguered CEO, Tony Hayward, is expected to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday.
President Obama headed back to the region today for his fourth visit since the blown-out rig sunk on April 22 and started gushing crude into Gulf waters. He will address the nation for the first time on Tuesday night on the cleanup response and damage claims.
(Tanker photo: Pennykall; Bush and Abdullah: White House)