Parochial Thinking Amid Ominous Signs

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The Committee to Keep NYC "Congestion Tax Free." Front row, left to right: John Corlett, Automobile Club of New York; Ray Irrera, Queens Chamber of Commerce; Council Member David Weprin; Lobbyist Walter McCaffrey; Joe Conley of Queens Community Board 2.

Ominous warnings relating to energy consumption have come recently from people on both ends of the political spectrum. The free-marketeers at the Council on Foreign Relations have issued a report warning that the United States cannot possibly kick its dependence on foreign energy and recommending drastic actions such as -- ready? -- gasoline rationing. Even more alarming, if also hopefully more far-fetched, a Russian who observed the collapse of the Soviet Union first hand, and still has an occasional kind word for communism sees disturbing parallels between that country before it fell and our country today.

Taken together, these writings describe a nation that needs to cut energy consumption now, which implications for urgently needed action at the national, state, local and individual levels. Amid these increasingly ominous signs, here in New York City, serious consideration of the single action that would offer the greatest reduction in local energy consumption for the least amount of work -- congestion pricing -- is nowhere because parochial local politicians are failing to think three feet beyond the borders of their districts. (I'm looking at you, David Weprin.)

First, via the Oil Drum, we learn that the Council on Foreign Relations has issued a pdf-formatted report that sounds an urgent tone about the security implications of the United States's dependence on energy imported from foreign, often hostile nations.

Council. On. Foreign. Relations. 

This is the illuminati speaking: A powerful group that has enormous influence, for better or for worse, on U.S. international policy. As a task force of 27 influentials frets that the global market on which oil is traded may not function properly in the future, it presents this chilling thesis: 

U.S. energy policy has been plagued by myths, such as the feasibility of achieving "energy independence" through increased drilling or anything else. For the next few decades, the challenge facing the United States is to become better equipped to manage its dependencies rather than pursue the chimera of independence.

Two concurring authors of the report issue a more dire statement in a concurring opinion: Our dependence on oil has:

Enriched and emboldened Iran, enabled President Vladimir Putin to undermine Russia's democracy, entrenched regressive autocrats in Africa, forestalled action against genocide in Sudan, and facilitated Venezuala's campaign against free trade in the Americas. Most gravely, oil consumers are in effect financing both sides of the war on terrorism. Transformation in the use of energy, especially in transportation where oil is unrivaled ... is essential.

The United States imports more than 60% of its oil. Oil demand rises steadily year by year as the economy and the aggregate number of miles traveled by our vehicle fleet grow in tandem. Domestic oil production is in decline and has been for 35 years despite heroic efforts throughout that time to boost production. Because of decreasing marginal returns, we can't just drill more and expect more oil to come out of the ground at the same easy rate we've been accustomed to. Alternatives to oil (and natural gas, also increasingly scarce) account for a tiny fraction of the energy we receive from oil, and will take decades to become viable if indeed they are to be successful. Far from achieving energy independence, it is hard to see how our dependence on Saudi Arabia and other oil producers isn't going to increase in the coming decades. As the price of oil increases, we'll be sending away more of our national wealth and receiving less in return.

Most Americans, ingrained with the knowledge that the U.S. has worked its way out of many problems in the past, would say, if they gave the energy issue a second's thought, that we should and will, therefore, reduce our foreign oil dependency. People who have looked at the problem in greater detail say: "How?"

So the Council on Foreign Relations says we ought to focus on conservation (with higher CAFE standards, higher gas taxes, and even rationing). They say that we should do this for national security reasons because, today, there is no fall-back producer to swing into action like there was during the 1970s oil shocks.

Why does the CFR see this a grave national security threat? Junkies quiver and shake when they miss their fix. Imagine the chaos from a prolonged reduction in imports. Dmitry Orlov has. He is a Russian who lived through the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in the early 1990s and he sees disturbing parallels between the end-state Soviet Union and the United States of today, such as a "persistently unfavorable trade balance." Most alarmingly, he observes the runaway flow of capital out of the nation and takes as a given an impending collapse of the United States. "One of the best known facts about empires is that they do collapse," he writes. "No exceptions."

Echoing the concern the CFR shows toward the global market's ability to provide us a steady stream of oil, Orlov writes,

The Soviet Union did not need to import energy. The production and distribution system faltered, but never collapsed. Price controls kept the lights on even as hyperinflation raged. The term "market failure" seems to fit the energy situation in the United States. Free markets develop some pernicious characteristics when there are shortages of key commodities. During World War II, the United States government understood this, and successfully rationed many things, from gasoline to bicycle parts. But that was a long time ago. Since then, the inviolability of free markets has become an article of faith.

Turning to transportation in a comparison of the "collapse preparedness" of the U.S. with that of the U.S.S.R., he writes:

Soviet public transportation was more or less all there was, but there was plenty of it. There were also a few private cars, but so few that gasoline rationing and shortages were mostly inconsequential. All of this public infrastructure was designed to be almost infinitely maintainable, and continued to run even as the rest of the economy collapsed.

The population of the United States is almost entirely car-dependent, and relies on markets that control oil import, refining, and distribution. They also rely on continuous public investment in road construction and repair. The cars themselves require a steady stream of imported parts, and are not designed to last very long. When these intricately interconnected systems stop functioning, much of the population will find itself stranded.

When he factors in the uselessness of suburban and exurban housing in the absence of cheap energy, he sees "mass migrations of homeless people toward city centers." Could it be a coincidence that energy prices have been rising lately and a recent article in the New York Post begins: "The rest of the country may be in a housing slump, but Manhattan apartment prices keep going through the roof, a new survey shows."

But we ought not to just sit here and let major disasters befall us. We are Americans: smart, determined and resiliant, when motivated.

In the United States, 68% of oil is used in transportation, mostly gasoline and jet fuel. The way to conserve energy is to drive less. As an individual, one should cycle or take mass transit at every opportunity. But as a Streetsblog reader, you probably do this already. The way to get others to drive less is to make it more expensive.

Given that last week was Congestion Pricing Week here in New York City, you might see where I am going with this. Now, it has been noted here on Streetsblog, that congestion pricing is a tool properly used to combat congestion, not to lessen energy imports or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But cars are particularly wastefully and inefficient when they are idling in stalled traffic, and this one beautifully simple policy does all three. Two benefits are happy side effects of the intended use of the policy. In London, congestion pricing reduced road casualties by 70 per year, eliminated significant amounts of asthma and cancer-causing air pollutants and is helping to stimulate the local economy. Congestion pricing is a policy that can help make New York City healthier and more vibrant (no, not "vibrant," but truly vibrant).

Faced with enormous looming crises related to automobile over-dependence, local officials in other cities -- London, Stockholm, and now Kampala, Uganda -- have moved forward with a creative solution to interrelated problems. Will New York City join this growing collection of innovative cities? Or will it be held hostage to parochial thinking, lack of vision and refusal to recognize the gravity of the problems that face us?

It is easy to forget that New York City once led the United States in the creation of automobile dependence. The 1929 Regional Plan was the model for how to take a 19th century industrial American city and retrofit it for automobiles and suburban commuters. Robert Moses spent the next few decades building out that blueprint. It is time for a new generation of New Yorkers to show the way to end automobile dependence.