To Address Demand for Oil, We Must Focus on Transportation

4592120939_8898c25834.jpgThe consequences of our transportation policy. (Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via Flickr)

Editor’s note: Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) sent us this commentary on the the BP oil spill, climate change and the need for transportation reform.

Last week, President Obama delivered his first speech from the Oval Office on the single greatest challenge our nation faces: how we supply and consume energy.

The searing images we’re seeing from the Gulf Coast — of the families who lost loved ones, of people out of work and of oil-coated birds and dolphins — are daily reminders of what’s at stake when we drill, baby, drill.

The truth is that we are drilling 150 miles offshore and one mile below the earth’s surface because we have run out of accessible oil. Most shocking is how small a difference this oil makes to our energy needs. The 35-60,000 barrels spewing daily from the Gulf floor would be enough to power our nation’s cars for just four minutes.

Whether from the Gulf of Mexico or Persian Gulf, we cannot meet our nation’s energy needs by drilling. We are at a precipice, and I stand firmly with President Obama when it comes to Congress passing legislation that arms the nation with clean energy.

But frankly, we need to do more on these issues, especially by addressing transportation and how we build in our communities.

The transportation sector accounts for almost three-quarters of U.S. oil consumption and one-third of our carbon emissions. If we really want to break our dependence on oil and improve our global competitiveness, we must focus on the way people commute and move goods.

Being truly aggressive about where and how we build can save even more money and energy — with the potential to cut carbon pollution 12-16 percent by 2030 and save more than a million barrels of oil a day.

This is not the first thing that comes to mind for most people, but to ensure our energy security, we need a comprehensive approach. I hope this becomes part of the future message and, more importantly, a key focus of Congressional action.

  • JK

    Leaders like Obama and Earl Blumenhauer must do better than generalities. What exactly does Congressman Blumenhauer propose congress do? Let’s see a concise, thoughtful proposal.

    I’ll propose something that left and right should be able to agree on: more and bigger challenge grants like Race to the Top or the Urban Mobility grants that led to SF Park and helped bolster NYC’s congestion pricing campaign. Congestion pricing didn’t pass in NY, nor did Race to the Top, but they did push the politics.

  • I agree that President Obama’s energy speech was short on specifics. While there are many actions that could be taken to reduce our consumption of oil, on a national level the most helpful thing Congress could do that many energy-aware people are calling for is enact a CO2 “pass-through” tariff. This CO2 pass-through (let’s not call it a tax–people hate taxes) would be revenue neutral. All funds collected via the pass-through would be divvied out each quarter in equal amounts to each US taxpayer. Begin the collection of the pass-through in six months time so people have plenty of warning. Start at a low level–say $3 per ton of CO2 emitted by any given fuel. (For gasoline, this would amount to 3 cents per gallon.) Increase this amount by $3 (per ton of CO2 emitted) each month for the next five years. (Note: It would be a good idea to stop subsidizing corn so that the true costs of ethanol are not artificially hidden.)

    Though some may argue this would hurt the economy, currently we send $1 billion dollars out of the country each day to buy imported oil. And we take this oil and burn it, often for frivolous purposes, with little to show for it afterward. Putting people’s ingenuity and attention towards reducing their carbon emissions will create surprising economic activity. Houses will get insulated, bikes will become electrified, cars and trucks (entire fleets of them) will be converted to electric or natural gas. Solar panels and solar hot water heaters will go up; coal-burning electricity plants will be converted to natural gas or bio-mass or communities may decide wind turbines are attractive after all. (North Dakota, with all its wind, will become the new Alaska.) The economics of public transit will become more cost-effective and people will clamor for bicycle infrastructure. Ceiling fans and LED lights will sell like hotcakes, and communities will make money peddling their compost as fertilizer. Freight will convert back to rail, high speed rail will become desired, and airlines will figure out how to run a limited number of planes on bio-fuel. Unlike with cap-and-trade, Goldman Sachs and their ilk will not get any piece of the action. Energy hogs will subsidize the frugal, we will ratchet down the poisoning of our atmosphere, and best of all, we will all begin to actively prepare for the real future ahead of us, not a fantasy future based on unlimited resource consumption and unlimited ecological destruction on what we know to be a very precious, finite planet.

  • Nat

    Tiger II Grant Program is a good start. A marriage of DOT and HUD principles and planning protocol, the program is a merit-based approach to awarding and administering surface transportation funds. When we speak of ‘complete streets’ this is what the federal government has responded with.
    It may not solve all our infrastructure issues, but the program certainly has a role to play in the new multiyear surface transportation bill – if and when Congress gets around to crafting it.

  • Robo

    Amen, Earl. Let the public transportation age begin.

  • gecko

    This may seem impossible but it is possible to reduce the environmental footprint of most if not all of transportation to less than one percent that of cars and be well on our way to curing the oil addiction and building a truly remarkable civilization.

    This is the incredible promise of looking at the problem and how to solve it the right way.

  • gecko

    This is a tremendous opportunity now in the Gulf.

    The people there should be repurposed to fight the devastating affects of global warming with intense industry in solar, wind, ultra-light environmental transportation, rapid creation and deployment of the best schools and universities — MIT’s Opencourseware can serve as the reference — in geophysics, earth, social, business, economic sciences etc. to start to envision and ultimately create the transition to a civilization that knows how to design and build with the environment; to fully exploit responsibly the tremendous riches and services this planet provides in its natural capital and most importantly its human capital.

  • Rob

    In discussing options for a major urban interstate project, one official remarked that we should build what we can get money for now, not wait to build somehting that we may be able to get money for later. What is it that we can build now? A higway expansion, of course. Perhaps we can dress it up with HOV or BRT-style busses running in mixed traffic, but the highway add-a-lane option has real money attached to it. This happens all across the nation. We build what we can get money for, not what is best for the region, the state, or the nation.

    The project evaluation methodoligies and funding formulas dictate highway solutions. “Cost effectivess” is used to justify decisions, not to make them. I make that distinction because the concept of cost-effectiveness is heavily laden with bias through the exclusion of many costs and the inability to appropriately value a wide range of benefits across a full spectrum of economic, social, and environmental benefits at local, regional, national, and global scales. If we – as regions, states, and a Nation – take a hard look at the outcomes we have achieved and the future scenario they are leading us toward, it is quite clear that our decisions and investments have *not* been cost-effective. Cost is all about what is included, what is excluded, and who is doing the math.

    Our leaders in D.C. need to tackle funding formulas and project scoring methodolgies in order to level the playing field between hgihways and transit.

  • gecko

    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=climate-expertise-lacking-among-global-warming-contrarians&sc=DD_20100623

    This comes from Scientific American, June 22, 2010, by David Biello:

    “Experto Crede: Climate Expertise Lacking among Global Warming Contrarians

    “A majority of scientists who dispute global warming lack the climatological expertise to do so,”

    There is a high-level of absurdity in these declarations — equivalent to affirming that the world is round — deemed necessary since the president has so far declined to take crucially aggressive scale-appropriate action on climate change forcing the dangerously accelerating rate of environmental devastation putting human civilization at extreme risk.

  • Lavern M Wilson

    I live in mixed use development with near 20-22 businesses where state route, railroad and airport are all within 5 minute drive.

    All the basic services to serve a family and if we have a great plan we should be able to connect those dots. Great target is identifying who is not allowing that great plan! It’s all about the money and if we follow it real good, we will GET that a great city planner, or a architect, DOT, HUD or developer are not the only players to get that plan. Maybe if we took the brilliant thoughts from a economy expert and blend it in our built environments and how to connect it with all it’s opportunities, we can allow ourselves to get what plans are worth moving forward with 🙂 cause until we allow a good path that can convince and guide
    travel habits and let’s not forget that we can also nip how we want ourselves to spend!

  • Lavern M Wilson

    And when I mean spend that is at those pumps:((((

  • Rich Greene

    Why can’t we do with trains what low cost air has done to travel in Europe? Isn’t a thousand passengers at $10 better than a hundred at $95?

  • Currently the split for federal transit funds is 80% to highways and 20% to mass transit systems. With a continued increase in highways and roads the need and reliance on oil increases. A shift to a more equal distribution to mass transit systems would create less dependence on oil, increased accessibility to transit options and hopefully a more healthy and sustainable environemnt. Congressman Blumenauer has a good start to the much needed discussion on reforming our dependence on oil.

  • Art Weber

    Yes, transportation is an important issue. But how many experts know or care whether driving a motor vehicle is or is not a natural or fundamental right
    From time to time somebody will take a state Department of Motor Vehicles to court, claiming that revocation of his/her drivers license constitutes a violation of one’s constitutional right to travel. California courts have rejected such claims, ruling that a drivers license is not the equivalent of one’s fundamental right to travel. Driving is sufficiently dangerous that all states require motorists to have insurance policies. Don’t sprawl development patterns that force us to depend on motor vehicles violate our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
    Let’s quit promoting smart growth and transit-oriented development with incentives, tax breaks, economic stimulants, subsidies and rhetoric which sounds like the euphonious appellations that turn up in W. C. Fields movies. Let’s inject some human rights terminology into the planning process. Isn’t there sufficient urgency to justify a prohibition of any development that is not at least as accessible and functional for non-motorists as it is for those who drive?

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