Practical Steps to Oil Independence

Sometimes we zoom down the road without knowing exactly where we are going. Then, it’s time to stop and ask for directions. When that happens on our drive to sustainable transportation strategies, we give a call to John DeCicco, senior fellow at Environmental Defense.

Question

With the rise of gas prices, President Bush is now promoting research into ethanol, hydrogen, and plug-in hybrids. What’s the most immediate and practical step he could take to produce real change?

John’s Reply

The most immediate and practical step the president could take is to embrace a national policy to cut carbon (i.e., reduce global warming pollution). He should shift the Administration’s strategy from procrastination to passing a law to cut carbon on a clear timetable.

Now, you might ask, what does that have to do with high gasoline prices? Quite a lot, actually. Despite the lofty and no doubt often sincere rhetoric about energy independence from all sides, U.S. energy strategy lacks a clear guiding principle. That’s why, after years of policies made under the banner of freedom from foreign oil, we still face the situation we have today. Unfortunately, energy independence—or a similar rhetorical goal such as ending oil dependence—provides a weak foundation for public policy.

A firm commitment to use less carbon-producing fuel, on the other hand, would mean that the country is serious about changing its energy system. The options pursued wouldn’t be limited to just those that fit the mold of being alternatives to oil. It would mean minding the carbon consequences of all decisions, making the choices that most practically and affordably lower emissions without waiting for something new to be invented or for the costs of alternatives to come down.

America got into its present situation of risky and rising oil demand by not paying attention to the lasting impacts of decisions made day in and day out by government agencies, businesses and consumers. We widen that road rather than pursue alternatives; expand airports instead of developing high-speed rail; build on farmland rather than re-invest in urban areas, and buy bigger, faster vehicles—all without being mindful of the fact that millions of such choices add up to the billions of gallons of fuel burned every year. Evaluating the carbon impacts of our choices provides a good indicator of what’s the wiser decision to make.

A commitment to cut carbon would include researching new fuels and technologies, and investing in them when they make sense, but it doesn’t stop there. Indeed, it doesn’t start there: it would start with many more practical steps. Only by making different choices when facing the many decisions that determine the extent of carbon emissions will America start down the path toward a sustainable energy system. Such a system will be less consumptive of oil, and that’s the only tried and true way to hold down fuel prices. Indeed, oil price futures would probably plunge the day the president announced that America was indeed changing course and was going to do it for real by making it the law of the land to cut carbon, no "if’s, and’s, maybe’s or but’s."

Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, John DeCicco is a Ph.D. mechanical engineer who specializes in automotive strategies for Environmental Defense, where he evaluates vehicle technologies and helps develop market-based policies for addressing the car-climate challenge. John was the original creator of ACEEE’s Green Book, which HybridCars.com references for the its Gas Mileage Impact Calculator and lists of the "greenest" and "meanest" vehicles, and he has published widely-cited technical studies on automotive energy and climate issues.