As Americans focus on a contentious presidential election between diametrically opposed candidates, an issue that’s challenged the last eight presidents combined remains, and this is its “addiction” to its monopoly energy source, petroleum.
Since President Richard Nixon, the call for “energy independence” has been described as having potential to profoundly shape the U.S. economy, culture, and the very air its people and their future generations breathe.
To some who may have heard just some of the issues, this can appear as divisive a topic as the election, but advocates have long said this need not be so. That is because, regardless whether one agrees with all reasons for reducing petroleum consumption, there is something in it for everyone.
In other words, if viewed from the big picture, the benign general goal of using less oil has bipartisan appeal, they say. Anger and heated rhetoric have only been incited when people dive into the details and debate policies aimed at achieving what for America has been an elusive objective.
Advocates, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), trying to work with all stakeholders, have generally talked about a multi-pronged approach – as have legislators and government regulators. This means, while the UCS pushes for plug-in electrified cars, its Half the Oil plan recommends several strategies and technologies for several sectors, including transportation, and aspires to be win-win for all.
As you may have noticed, the line between what could be, and what is, can be a real one.
With fuel prices artificially low, American car sellers have been recording record profits driven by truck and SUV sales with hybrids down to 1.97 percent of the market, and plug-ins climbing, but still at just 0.83 percent.
It’s been said a mass changeover to plug-ins is not going to happen until the price-for-performance barrier comes down versus incumbent gasoline. The picture is improving, with new models coming out that are much better than those introduced earlier this decade, and the effort continues.
Realistically, individual consumers buy into technology like EVs or hybrids when the light bulb goes on for them that these will meet their budget and needs.
But petroleum reduction is not just about electrified vehicles. The move away from oil also embraces alternative fuels, simply more-efficient conventional vehicles, even bicycles, mass transit, and other alternatives.
That wheels have turned more slowly than predicted – for the past 42 years or more – is undeniable, however, as comedian Jon Stewart shows in parodying the somber declarations of presidents past.
In any event, and as Americans prepare yet again to hope in the words of who ever will be the next president, reality pushes ahead in the face of an “entrenched” oil-dependent paradigm.
As for cars we drive, the transition to lower emitting and higher mpg is being forced by Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules from now through 2025 – with intent to continue reductions beyond. Although parallel California rules do call for more zero-emission electrified vehicles, the federal plan is more flexible in allowing automakers to choose multiple ways to get the job done. Under U.S. EPA rules, only 1-3 percent plug-ins are required by 2025, though the move is on for much more than this.
With a focus on the vehicles we drive, following are a few reasons why this could be good for everyone in the long run.
Reduce Global Warming
To get one of the potentially contentious issues out of the way, the often-heard motivation for alternative fuels is climate change.
As the U.S. uses advanced petroleum extraction techniques like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to squeeze out more oil, advocates say these do nothing for already troublesome greenhouse gas emissions.
Lower emission vehicles on the other hand can cut down on the millions of tons of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere.
Plug-in vehicles in particular let drivers bypass the gas pump altogether on daily drives. This is true even of plug-in hybrids with as low as 20 miles range, assuming one’s daily needs are that low, or not much more.
The UCS estimates that by 2035 the transition to plug-ins could cut 1.3 million barrels per day from U.S. oil consumption.
The advocacy also pitches advanced cellulosic biofuels derived from waste products and environmentally friendly crops such as perennial grasses that would not compromise the food supply.
These are estimated by the UCS to cut oil use by 1.7 million barrels per day by 2035.
Less controversial than the effects of CO2 on the climate is that tailpipes today are spewing toxic gases and particles into the air everyone breathes.
Where a blanket of smog exists, this may be more apparent, but otherwise an often invisible issue like air quality may be hard to grasp.
It is a reality, however, and authorities unanimously cite this as responsible for numerous health concerns.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, aside from climate change concerns, also affecting us all are smog-forming NOx, particulate matter (PM), and ozone pollution.
Smog can wreak havoc on the lungs, aggravating conditions like asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis, among a list of concerns.
Particulate matter has been traced to premature death for people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, decreased lung function, and asthma attacks.
Reducing tailpipe emissions stands to curtail these pollution-related illnesses and deaths, especially for those near roadways, and people in cities.
This one stands to be a debate too, but it depends on how things play out.
According to the UCS, upwards of a million new jobs are projected assuming the country moves forward on alternative energy transportation.
Driving the shift are the “hard won” CAFE rules, and here a battle line is perceptibly drawn.
Fighting the enterprise, says the UCS, are oil companies which have been alleged to be in cahoots with auto companies resisting more-rapid development.
Presently, the industry’s lobby arm – the Auto Alliance – is creating case studies and statistics attempting to weaken federal 2022-2025 emission regulations.
Representing a dozen automakers, the Auto Alliance has said the exact opposite of the UCS in that 1.1 million jobs could be lost if automakers are made to toe the line and raise fleet average mpg from today’s 26 mpg to about 39 mpg by 2025.
A comprehensive examination of the merits of both positions is beyond the scope of this overview, but the UCS has shot holes in arguments by the Alliance saying it has regurgitated old data, cherry picked facts, and presented false assertions.
Meanwhile, unemployment predicted since 2011 by the Alliance has not happened, and the UCS predicts a boost to the economy, as well as the country which yet leads, but is slipping in an emerging global plug-in car industry.
Aside from automakers hiring new people to design and build new kinds of vehicles, today’s new-tech auto environment has prompted startups to jump into the market such as has not been seen for decades.
Energy Options and Freedom
This has benefitted oil companies and auto companies set up to profit from this reality, but it also leaves the U.S. tied to OPEC, and the global market which is out of its control.
At the moment while gas prices are relatively affordable, consumers who manage their lives either by reaction, or crisis management, may feel fine, as today’s cheap gas makes it seem there is no perceived pressing crisis.
That, say advocates, is a false sense of security, as the umbilical cord that keeps the U.S. vulnerable to what is happening in other unstable regions remains. Oil is what economists call a “global fungible commodity” and its price is set on the world market, and out of U.S. control.
Domestically sourced energy – including electricity and proposed alternative fuels, assuming they become feasible – means consumer choice.
This also stands to reduce and ultimately end the reliance on petroleum that has pulled the country into war, continually demands expensive military protections and foreign policy actions in nations where terrorists target the U.S.
The economics of new alternative energy hybrid and plug-in cars today are a mixed bag. Some clearly pay back, others may pay back, and meanwhile developments are improving the value question.
The UCS says typical American drivers spend almost as much on gas as they do on their vehicle. All told, this is around 2 billion dollars spent on oil and petroleum products per day.
Money savings from cutting this applies not just to individuals – like you – but for all, though today some alternatives can be relatively higher cost.
While these are still ramping up, critics have observed high costs offsetting those fuel savings, but this was predicted from the outset, and is considered normal at this early stage.
As economies of scale and costs decrease, and as technologies improve, the cost equation is getting better.
For example, Chevrolet is doubling the EV range per dollar one could have gotten just one year ago, with its $30,000 (after federal tax credit), 238-mile range Bolt EV.
At least five other companies are at work on similar price for performance, and this is just generation two, with more development and efficiencies expected.
Like the election, the subtopic of cutting petroleum dependence can be a source of heated debate with radically opposed viewpoints, but it actually offers something for everyone.
Who does not care about air quality for themselves, and their children, and children’s children? And, who does not care about having consumer choice? And who does not care about global ties to nations in which terrorists see the U.S. as public offender number one?
These factors remain before anyone begins to talk about global warming, or taxpayer dollars devoted.
To be sure, much more could be said on these topics only brushed, but the entire world is actually moving this way.
Aside from the U.S. perspective, policymakers in Europe, China, and Asia are also attempting to curtail petroleum use. Last month the major automakers of Europe announced by 2025 their global sales would consist of 15-25 percent plug-in cars, with implication that was just a beginning.
Undoubtedly potential for contention is in the details, but at least certain is these issues are not going away. The shift away from what has been a security blanket and shaper of our very culture for the past hundred years is happening.