Getting Serious About Energy

No doubt you’ve already heard the news; Barack Obama has continued to demonstrate that elections matter by asking the EPA to reconsider its Bush-era position on tough emissions rules in California, and by pushing ahead measures to increase automobile fuel economy standards. This is unquestionably good news, but there are a few things that need to be said about the changes.

First, it’s a shame that Obama continues to rail against dependency on foreign oil. For one thing, it’s not like domestic oil is all that much cleaner. For another, oil is a globally traded commodity, so to get us off foreign oil is to get us off oil, full stop. That’s a fine goal, but no one dares explain that that’s the actual implication of the “foreign oil” statement, since that suggests that Americans may need to change some of their nasty habits.

Next, while it’s true, as the Center for American Progress’ Daniel Weiss has it, that Obama “has done more in one week to reduce oil dependence and fight global warming than President Bush did in eight years,” that’s not exactly a high bar to clear. I understand that expectations are low, and that makes it easy to praise the new president, but if we hope to meet the energy and climate challenges that confront us, we’re going to have to ask for a lot more.

And finally, it’s remarkable that in all this ado over our new commitment to ending oil dependence and addressing climate change there is no mention of land use patterns or the transportation choices that shape them. Why no mention of reduced transit funds in the stimulus bill, or the fact that the House is planning to give highways $30 billion to transit’s $10 billion? Why no pressure placed on Senate Democrats, who are busy revising transit’s share down even more, in their version of the stimulus bill? The bottom line is that if you increase efficiency and increase vehicle miles traveled, well, you’ve just spun your wheels. If the administration is going to get serious about these issues, it needs to take seriously the option of helping Americans to drive less.


  1. Sam says:

    Oil independence does equal reduced oil consumption because there is only so much oil in the US

  2. BruceMcF says:

    What Sam Says said …

    … but of course, without reducing VMT per driver and drivers per capita, we are never conceivably going to be able to reduce oil consumption by more than 50% … and going down to zero net oil imports requires a reduction of more than 50%.

  3. Cavan says:

    This is a process that is taking decades that needs to happen now.

    Step one has at least shown up in the younger generations’ affinity for center cities and walkable downtowns. Also, we don’t mind taking or prefer to take transit when it is clean and convenient and on rails. We hate traffic and equate driving with being stuck in traffic rather than freedom. Cars are also something you use to get around, rather than a part of your self-image.

    Sadly, in most of the country, those sentiments aren’t being used well because those who make policy are stuck in the Matrix of cars, asphalt, parking lots, and McMansions. They will be until they retire.

    I guess the only choice is to keep writing and attending meetings on land use issues. I’ll keep trying, even though I think change will come after we’re already literally under water.

  4. Alex Szczech says:

    Ryan said: “The bottom line is that if you increase efficiency and increase vehicle miles traveled, well, you’ve just spun your wheels.”

    I was thinking the same thing last night whilst watching the evening news’ coverage of this. I’d much prefer to see an additional $2 (or more) a gallon tax on gasoline to discourage driving altogether. The revenues from the tax could then be used to fund public transportation — especially a nationwide passenger rail system.

  5. Carrington Ward says:

    Patience, grasshopper. I think it would be a mistake to try to slip significant rail and transport investments into the stimulus bill — better to build consensus around a free-standing ‘national defense railway act.’

    Such a consensus is much more likely to stick. The result is that the project itself will be less likely to be dismissed in a few years as a pork-barrel project that is no longer necessary.

  6. LonelyLibertarian says:

    There is a simple solution that we can move to – it is the Euro model of high gas taxes and very little free parking – these dual incentives will begin to make mass transit more sensible and support the development of high speed rail alternatives to long distance drives.

    Our model of low gas taxes and tons of fee parking options will never get us to make the lifestyle changes that would lead to more efficient overall energy usage – which is what I favor.

    A number of studies on light rail and mass transit systems as they are currently configured suggest that near term increases in usage will HAVE A NEGATIVE impact on energy consumption ie increasing fossil fuel usage in the short term.

  7. MNPundit says:

    Summers hates it. He should be arrested I think.

  8. Henk says:

    “it’s remarkable that in all this ado over our new commitment to ending oil dependence and addressing climate change there is no mention of land use patterns or the transportation choices that shape them”

    I totally agree. Transit systems and their efficiency, while an improvement, are band aids that don’t address the root problem. The sprawl system that locks us into cars is the elephant in the room that policy makers are ignoring.

  9. John Kuhner says:

    Ryan is absolutely correct here. Not only do cities like Atlanta and Houston and Los Angeles and Phoenix have completely inadequate transit systems, but even the cities with satisfactory mass transit like Boston, New York, and Washington are inadequately linked. The cheapest and fastest ways between these cities is by car, bus, or plane, entirely as a result of government policy.
    A piece on revitalizing rail in the US:

  10. LonelyLibertarian says:

    Mr Kuhner confuses correlation with causation – as often happens. Government policy is an outcome – not an input. Houston offers a perfect example – with no zoning laws to restrict land use and our American love of low gas prices there is no basis for any economically viable mass transit system.

    As I said earlier – the road to a solution is simple – we need a strong leader to take a stand on why we need to pay more for gas – a gradually increasing tax on gas would assure a smooth transition to more fuel efficient vehicles.

    A second step – taxing parking spaces – will be harder – but free parking is just as much to blame as low gas prices.

  11. richard says:

    The suburbanization of North America (it applies to Canada, too) has been going on since the 1920’s, and as a matter of national policy since 1949. That’s a lot of entrenched infrastructure to try to unravel all at once.

    Raising gas taxes is only one part of the solution. We’re going to have to have new lending standards for housing and development, greenlining around every city, less big box retail, more multi-family housing, and higher densities around existing transit hubs. We’ll likely have to use the existing freeway infrastructure as the basis for new rail development. Farming will have to be deindustrialized and mixed into the city fabric.

    Cities like Houston are not going to turn into bicycle-driven Amsterdams any time soon. It’s going to be a long process of change, and we have to commit to starting now. Otherwise we’re going to have a lot of crumbling shopping malls in the coming decades.

  12. LonelyLibertarian says:

    Agree Richard – the hard part is land use/free parking/sprawl…
    Getting folks to live in smaller – closer together spaces will be a challenge….

    But the quality of life argument is interesting – I have not lived in Europe – but have visited and walking and using mass transit are not great impositions – they have real benefits compared to hoping in a car and going – which is what we are used to.

  13. Oil does not have to be treated as an interchangeable global commodity. We can tax imported oil, or we can IMHO even require domestic producers to sell inside the USA. Interferes with their market freedoms? Well, consider that resources under ground are not easily show proper tokens of labor-mixing property rights (the owning of the rights first, not the work drawing them up later) and so can be, or could have been, considered a national resource.

  14. BruceMcF says:

    We can tax imported oil, or we can IMHO even require domestic producers to sell inside the USA.

    We could require domestic producers to sell inside the United States … it wouldn’t be a benefit to anyone, but its an option.

    Of course, with a majority of our petroleum consumption coming from net imports, and with reserves amounting to 2% of global reserves, against consumption at 24% of global consumption … the only area where we can actually exercise sovereignty is in reducing our consumption of oil.

    Now, if a tax on imported oil is easier to get through politically than a tax on gasoline and diesel … well, then, that makes a rather compelling case for a tax on imported oil, since its political considerations which see the US continuing to tax gas and diesel like it was a net crude oil exporter.