The Road to Energy Conservation

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change documented that we are changing our climate and life on Earth as we know it. In arresting climate change and solving related energy issues, we should follow the physicians' oath - first, do no harm - and avoid alternatives with equal or greater impacts than our present energy supply.

Consider the example of ethanol. Production requires large amounts of petroleum, farmland, corn, and water, yet it has questionable alternative energy value, has its own emissions and siting problems, directly competes with food supply, and its transport requires special vehicles instead of pipelines. Market-driven production capacity has raced ahead of available delivery infrastructure. This has caused the price of ethanol to crash from overproduction, while at the same time increased demand for corn to produce ethanol has raised corn prices and reduced the availability of corn for food, raising food prices.Our preoccupation with letting the free market determine our national energy policy is wasteful folly and not in the public interest. Our margin of error to make catastrophic energy policy mistakes with impunity is shrinking as fast as the window to tackle climate change is closing. Reliance on markets alone cannot solve this and doing so will bankrupt our future. We need sustainable national energy policy legislated now. Energy conservation should be first.

The most abundant low-hanging fruit of energy conservation is rotting on the vine because we are mired in political gridlock over improving fuel efficiency in vehicles. Detroit manufacturers brag about achieving greater efficiency in cutting the energy costs of producing an automobile, then pass on inefficient fuel costs to the environment and consumers. Green-washing themselves about the efficiency of their hybrids, they lobby successfully against any policy change to improve fleet mileage standards.

Two-thirds of the petroleum consumed in this country is used in transportation. Imagine if we doubled transportation efficiency and cut that two-thirds in half. Consuming 21 billion barrels of petroleum per year in the United States, we use 14 billion barrels in transportation alone - saving half of that would be 7 billion barrels per year.

If Congress directed Detroit to double all vehicle fuel efficiency, the resulting oil saving is only the first of many benefits that would accrue to our national well-being:

  • Improved security through reduced oil importation from volatile areas of the world.
  • Improved economy through reduced production and transportation costs, reduced international trade deficits, and increased competitiveness.
  • Improved environment in air, water, and climate quality through reduced emissions, making a down payment on everything we must do to halt the devastation of long-term climate change.

No other single action we could take now has that much benefit.

None of this will happen voluntarily in the market, which operates solely to maximize profits, not to build sustainable futures. The market-driven push to drill every remaining national wildland from the Alaskan Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico is also neither ecologically desirable nor sustainable, since we cannot escape the facts that we have only 2 percent to 3 percent of world oil reserves and use 25 percent of the world's produced oil.

The goal of Congress to pass meaningful energy legislation by Christmas is paralyzed by lawmakers' inability to reconcile different House and Senate bills, even as President Bush threatens to veto any bill including a repeal of oil industry tax incentives - a perfect storm of failure. This gridlock must be replaced with political leadership that will enact sustainable energy policies putting conservation first while longer-term solutions such as renewable alternatives, solar, wind, carbon sequestration, and other efficiencies are realized. The technology exists to double national fuel efficiency. Congress should do that now as a first step and enact policies that encourage making environmentally sustainable long-term energy supplies profitably available. Then let markets deliver the results. Right now, we have it backward.

We can passively wait like deer frozen in the headlights until we get hit with $200 per barrel oil prices, or we can act. Every congressional and presidential candidate should be held accountable to break the deadlock. If we fail to act, future generations will inherit an impoverished Earth and rightfully never forgive us.

The clock is ticking. It's time to drill Detroit.

Allen E. Smith is a freelance environmental writer and previously served as Alaska regional director of The Wilderness Society.

(c) Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company

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