Sunday, June 20, 2010

Battling Our Oil Dependence Once and For All: A Blueprint

This is a guest post by Peter Lehner, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The unfolding Gulf tragedy underscores the dire consequences of scraping the bottom of the barrel for energy. As the President noted in his speech this week, the unavoidable fact is that we have a paltry 2% of the world’s oil reserves but account for 20% of global consumption. Slaking this enormous thirst, the President noted, drives companies to drill in deep ocean waters since “we’re running out of places to drill on and in shallow water.”
We need a new direction that moves America beyond oil and other dirty fuels. This is admittedly a huge challenge: The U.S. consumes the equivalent of the 19,000 or so barrels of sludge released daily by the BP geyser in less than two minutes. Yet this eye-popping consumption level also affords opportunities to address our energy needs by focusing on saving oil rather than scouring the ends of the earth for more.
The good news is that we’ve already made progress thanks to the Obama Administration, which took a big step forward with the new national vehicle greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy standards adopted last year. For the first time in decades, the fuel economy performance bar for the national fleet of cars and trucks is rising, which is projected to save about two million barrels of oil a day by 2030, or about 10% of current consumption. New standards for renewable fuels and heavy trucks are being developed as I type this, and they will drive our oil dependence down too.
But we can go much, much further. As I have said and written before, the first order of business is a comprehensive clean energy and climate bill. In his speech this week, the President mentioned the House bill championed by Congressmen Markey and Waxman, a bill that would squeeze oil imports further via investments in electrification of our vehicle fleet, new transportation infrastructure such as commuter rail, and firm limits on heat-trapping pollution that would encourage enhanced oil recovery by making the injection of carbon dioxide into dry wells — a tried-and-true technique — more economically feasible.
What few realize is that Congress has another set of powerful tools available in other pending legislation: The transportation law is one of the nation’s biggest investment policies ($70 billion per year, or more than one-fifth of the nation’s total investment in transportation). This law expired last September, and Congress has moved slowly to renew it. This is bad news since current law promotes our addiction to oil. It is a massive highway-centered regime that includes a confusing tangle of 108 programs often separated into separate fiefdoms with thousands of earmarked pork-barrel projects further complicating the picture.
To its credit, the House Transportation Committee unveiled a re-authorization proposal last summer that diverges from the status quo by eliminating or consolidating wasteful programs, focusing more on energy and climate issues, and devoting more resources to fuel-efficient transportation infrastructure. But even that proposal doesn’t go far enough. What we need is an entirely new direction in transportation, as advocated by Transportation for America, the largest, most diverse transportation group in the United States made up of such groups as AARP, the American Heart Association, the National Association of Realtors, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, and our organization, NRDC.
Transportation for America groups believe it’s time to build a modern transportation system, one that runs efficiently, is funded wisely, and provides all of us with more options that ensure we all can get where we need to go regardless of age, ability, or income.
Our blueprint, the Route to Reform, prioritizes energy efficiency and security. It includes programs to complete the transportation system by building networks of intercity rail and buses, green freight and ports projects, transit projects in cities and towns, and nationally significant projects. And it makes a strong case for boosting national investments in transit to $500 billion over six years using a variety of financing tools such as a National Infrastructure Bank as proposed by President Obama.
There’s real potential to save oil by adopting such policies. Analyses have found that by following our recommendations we could cut oil consumption by more than a million barrels a day by 2030.
To sum up, we must use every tool at our disposal given the massive scale of the challenge. This means focusing on reforming our outdated, wasteful transportation law. I look forward to working with Congress and the President on this goal, for the sake of the Gulf, the planet, and future generations.