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.
Combined with those changes, Merkley also wants fuel efficiency improvements for trains, airplanes, ships and even bulldozers and lawn mowers. The EPA estimates that changes to these non-road travel options could save 1.6 millions barrels of oil daily.
Upgrading trucks and non-road vehicles would account or 2 million barrels daily, about one-quarter of Merkley’s overall target.
“With the penetration of electric vehicles, improvements in hybrid technology and overall fuel efficiency, all of this is reasonable,” Langer said. “It’s not clear what the trajectory will be for batteries, and for all we know, fuel cells will become more of an option.”
Streamlining Transit Options Not as Straightforward
The squishier segment of Merkley’s proposal is the part where he counts on saving 1.75 million barrels per day by improving transit options at the community level and prodding businesses to forego truck travel for trains and ships.
“This requires more of a behavioral change,” Langer pointed out, adding that the country’s car- and truck-dependent residential, commercial and industrial sectors are a reflection of the way transportation investment has been handled for the last 60 years. “But we now have a transportation secretary (Ray LaHood) who has gotten religion on this, and that’s different and new.”
While it might take 15 years for old vehicle stock to turn over, she said, it can take two or three times longer for layouts of roadways and buildings to change.
“Remember, it takes a long time to reshape all of this so it is accessible to something other than an individual truck or car,” Langer continued. “This is more than half a century of car-dependent development that we’re trying to root out.”
Merkley is calling for an overarching infrastructure in cities and suburbs that moves people rather than cars. He wants options such as bus rapid transit, light rail and streetcars, as well as streets that are safer for bicyclists and pedestrians. This ties into a series of initiatives that include expanding telecommuting options and giving commuters access to ride sharing programs and pay-as-you-drive insurance. His plan also emphasizes high-speed rail as an alternative to city-to-city driving and flying.
“One of tricky things here is that the federal government invests tens of billions of dollars every year into infrastructure and yet land use planning is a local function and everyone wants it to stay that way,” Langer said. “How do we align the two so they are compatible?”
Thus far, local governments have blazed a progressive path toward smart growth, she said. Still, distribution of transportation investments needs to be reorganized so rail and other transit options can be integrated with land planning.
Planning practices need to change, she continued, so local governments can analyze their investments and make sure they are in line with the priorities of reducing oil dependence and emissions of heat-trapping gases.
“We need a unifying theme that helps to guide the distribution of this huge amount of federal money,” she said.
On the freight-moving front, Merkley wants businesses to switch from trucks to trains and barges. Initially, he’s calling for a 10 percent shift that could grow as a comprehensive plan is developed. His numbers show that the same ton of freight that a tractor-trailer can haul 155 miles on a gallon of fuel can be transported 413 miles via rail and 576 by waterway.
He wants Congress to fund a program that adds rail and marine shipping capacity and offers companies incentives for investing in it.
Giving the President an Energy Hammer
Merkley’s plan gives the president power to appoint a National Council on Energy Security, similar to the National Economic Council. Energy experts and economists would join the EPA administrator and the secretaries of the Energy, Transportation, Commerce and Defense departments to coordinate government efforts to meet goals for conserving oil savings and reducing carbon pollution.
By being empowered to make recommendations to the president and Congress, the council could help ensure that energy priorities don’t get lost in the shuffle of administration changes.
“The real objective is to get off oil all together,” Langer emphasized. “From an economic and environmental perspective, there’s a serious liability associated with staying on oil.”
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