Lawmakers Introduce Reality-Based Plan to Achieve “Freedom From Oil”

Members of Congress of all stripes are trying to show that they’re concerned and responsive to the financial strain caused by high gas prices. Some are recommending more oil drilling. Some want to end subsidies to oil companies. Today, members of the Congressional Livable Communities Task Force suggested that providing more diverse transportation options to more people might help.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer leads the Congressional Livable Communities Task Force. Photo: ##http://bikeportland.org/2009/07/31/blumenauer-introduces-bill-to-restore-maintain-orphan-highways-21747##Bike Portland## / Jonathan Maus

“Here in Washington, DC, when gas prices spike, people have choices,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), chair of the Task Force. “They can take a bus, Metro, bike, Capital Bike-share, walk, cab, drive. It’s a wide range of [choices] and it actually minimizes some of the sticker shock. But unfortunately, about half the American population doesn’t have an environment they live in that provides those choices. Too much of America is dependent on a pattern that imagines that we will always have an unlimited supply of inexpensive gasoline, and government policies in housing and road transportation reinforce that.”

Blumenauer and other members of the Task Force introduced a report this morning called “Freedom From Oil: Policy Solutions From the Livable Communities Task Force.” It’s an impressive product from a Congressional task force, many of which exist in name only. The more than two dozen members of the Livable Communities Task Force, all House Democrats, strive to make the federal government a better partner with communities to promote “cost-effective, environmentally friendly solutions to infrastructure problems” and “coordinate transportation, housing, and environmental policies and investments.”

The lawmakers of the Task Force said increasing oil drilling in the U.S. will never have an appreciable effect on world oil prices, because the price of oil is determined globally and the U.S. supply won’t be sufficient to make a significant difference.

“Here’s the harsh reality: The United States is never going to have control over world oil supplies or gas prices through drilling,” said Task Force member Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA). “We simply don’t have the oil supplies, no matter how much we drill. What we do have is the ability to control prices by lowering our consumption and giving American families new transportation choices.”

Rep. Jim Moran, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, boasted about Arlington’s livability program, including contiguous bike trails, bike racks, and transit-oriented development. “It’s the only way to effectively work against this monopolistic control that for too long the oil companies have had over America’s policies and priorities,” Moran said.

The Freedom From Oil policy recommendations are:

  • Set clear national priorities for our transportation system, including a strategy and performance measures for reducing oil consumption.
  • Require Metropolitan Planning Organizations to evaluate the effects of new transportation projects on regional petroleum consumption.
  • Promote Pay-As-You-Drive insurance, allowing consumers to pay less if they drive less.
  • Encourage lenders to use transit accessibility and location efficiency as a factor in mortgage rates, taking into account the reduced spending on gas and making it easier to purchase a home that allows transportation savings.
  • Provide consumers with information about the transportation costs associated with the location of a house through a tool like the Transportation and Housing Affordability Index
  • Use the tax code to encourage businesses to offer comprehensive commuter benefit programs that level the playing field for alternative, non gas-dependent transportation.
  • Increase federal funding for transit, including allowing capital funds to be spent on operations, helping transit agencies deal with increased fuel prices without compromising service or access.
  • Increase funding for “Safe Routes to School” programs so that parents and children have the option to get to school safely without driving.
  • Support “Complete Streets” policies that design streets for all users, making it safer for people of all ages to travel by bike, foot, or public transportation.
  • Authorize the Office of Sustainable Communities at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and provide funding to the Partnership for Sustainable Communities so that the agencies can continue to provide technical assistance, planning, and capital support to communities.
  • Continue to increase fuel efficiency of passenger vehicles, which could save drivers the equivalent of $1.00-1.70 per gallon of gas.
  • Increase investment in alternative fuels like electric vehicles, which could save drivers $1000 in fuel costs each year.

Republicans often say theirs is an “all of the above” energy strategy, including drilling, nuclear, and alternatives. But as Moran pointed out, “the same people that vote for big oil subsidies also seem to vote against public transit.” Dan Weiss of the Center for American Progress Action Fund calls Freedom From Oil the real “all of the above” strategy – “not oil above all.”

While over the last few years, most transportation bills have been introduced with the intention that they would be folded into the reauthorization, pessimism that a bill will pass this year has changed that.

“The reauthorization is going to be a challenging task,” Blumenauer said. “I would not place any bets on seeing reauthorization happen anytime soon. But there is no reason these principles cannot be employed in legislative vehicles that are moving through Congress.” He suggested that taxation or energy legislation could be that vehicle.

  • OctaviusIII

    Without Republican support, this isn’t going anywhere.  It’s a shame no Republicans have decided to join up, not even those from the NE.

  • Good standards. I’d add maybe 2 more – zoning reform to encourage higher density and mixed uses, and good transit reforms making it easy for local governments to have (FRA-free) standards for regional transit. Regardless, it’s much better than deciding funding formulas with lobbyists and giving oil companies tax breaks.

  • Not such a huge fan of the ‘allowing capital funds to
    be spent on operations.’ Seems misguided …but overall, this is a great way to make some serious change while the transit authorization goes stale. But yes, without Republican support… its no use. And if the BP spill didn’t change their minds, they stick with their drill baby drill mantra, feeding the addiction rather than admit they should check in to petroleum rehab.

  • Foo

    Wait till the teabaggers hear about this. The hippies are coming to take away your SUV and your McMansion!

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    These are a small fixes that will prod us slowly in a
    lower-oil direction, and I agree the odds are low we’ll do even this.  It’s a good thing this problem isn’t
    urgent and doesn’t require immediate attention!

     

    If our dependence on cars and oil were, say, a public health concern that made our population fat, diabetic, asthmatic, and sent our health
    costs through the roof, we might need a little more haste.

     

    Or if our purchase of foreign oil wrecked havoc on our trade deficit and sucked money out of the country, we
    might find not acting quite expensive.

     

    And just imagine if (heaven forbid) fueling our cars by oil
    contributed to an environmental problem that threatened the very stability of the
    planet—failure to act would be downright irresponsible.

     

    Now if we had any notion that the major oil fields of the
    world were depleting, and other energy sources such as nuclear power were
    becoming iffy, and we were beginning to wonder just how were we going to get
    the energy to keep modern civilization going for the next fifty years, I’m sure
    we’d reorganize our entire way of life with alacrity.

     

    And if our dependence on oil made us actually resort to
    invading and bombing other countries to keep our supply going, we’d really know
    we’d sunk to an addict’s low and that it was time to change.  Heck, we’d need a national twelve-step
    program to recover from the shame.

     

    And if all these factors were combined (as they would be in
    only the worst B-grade Hollywood disaster flick—kind of like Godzilla arising during a space alien attack while a tsunami is on the way and an asteroid plummets towards Earth), just imagine how fast we’d get to work!  We’d scurry around as if our lives and
    everything we held dear depended upon reinventing the entire energetic basis of
    our civilization. Whew! Good thing
    we don’t have problems like that facing us or our children—we might not be able
    to fixate on really important things, like the debt ceiling kabuki theater and
    Charlie Sheen.

     

    If we actually had a serious problem with oil, our
    strategies might include:

    1)  
    Acknowledge that even if every square mile of
    the US and our coasts were drilled for oil, the small amount produced wouldn’t begin to
    meet our current national demand or even much dent the price of oil, a worldwide
    commodity sold on a worldwide market.

    2)  
    Encourage people to live within 10 miles of
    where they work.

    3)  
    Encourage children to walk or bike to their
    neighborhood school.

    4)  
    Encourage people to walk or bike for all trips
    under 2 miles.

    5)  
    Encourage people to use bicycles, electric
    bicycles, or public transit for most trips over 2 miles.

    6)   Gradually discourage most uses of private cars.

    7)  
    Encourage car manufacturers to convert their
    production lines to other products.

    8)  
    Encourage use of electric high-speed rail for
    distances under 1000 miles instead of plane or private car.

    9)  
    Encourage increased housing density and creation
    of neighborhoods that offer goods and services within a
    walkable distance of housing.

     

    Among our tactics we would:

     

    1)  
    Immediately end all subsidies to oil companies
    and oil refineries.

    2)  
    Immediately end all corn and ethanol subsidies.

    3)  
    Immediately outlaw all purchase of oil generated
    from tar sands.

    4)  
    Institute a rising federal gas tax that would predictably
    increase 1 cent a month every month for the next 5 years. Invest the proceeds
    in public transit infrastructure, especially rail between major urban areas.

    5)  
    Institute a national annual vehicle registration
    fee of 10 cents per pound of car/truck.

    6)  
    Turn all federal interstates into public
    tollways that entirely pay for the cost of the repair of said interstate. 

    7)  
    Along highly traveled rail corridors, give
    precedence to passenger rail over freight rail or lay down separate tracks for
    the two purposes.

    8)  
    Gradually decrease availability on public
    streets of storage space for private vehicles. Use the freed up public space to
    implement better walking and bicycling facilities on the lines of complete
    streets.

    9)  
    Make any federal educational funding contingent
    on the creation of neighborhood schools and safe routes for children to those
    schools.

    10) Start building high-speed rail instead of
    endlessly quarreling about it. (California) Create incentives to speed up the construction.

    11) Gradually reduce interest mortgage deduction for
    houses more than 10 miles away from the taxpayer’s place of work. (For houses
    within 10 miles, allow 100% mortgage interest deduction; within 20 miles, 80% deduction;
    30 miles, 70%, etc.) In case of married couples, take the average of the
    commutes.

    12)  Devote federal transportation funding to bridge and
    other structural repairs, complete streets implementation inside towns and
    cities, bicycle infrastructure between towns, and public transit
    infrastructure. No new roads built.

    13) Upgrade our national electrical grid so it’s able to
    reliably transport electricity from one region in the country to another.  Install massive amounts of solar in the
    West and Southwest, wind turbines in the Midwest, and off-shore wind turbines
    in the East.

    14)  If any new housing is built, give developer tax
    credit if housing is within half a mile of adequate public transit (defined, at
    minimum, as a bus that runs at least every 20 minutes) and if within half a
    mile of a grocery store.

     

    These would all be serious measures to deal with an acute,
    drastic problem. But since our dependence on oil involves no economic, health,
    energetic or environmental threats, we can continue untroubled with our
    car-dependent way of life without even a twinge of impending disaster.

     

  • Anonymous

    Logic!! It hurts!!

    Couple of “roadblocks,” in no particular order:

    -The electoral college and the primary system give huge political clout to the corn/swing states who love farm subsidies, highways, and sprawl.

    -2 senators per state => rural states accustomed to living off the teat of urban states => cheap roads to faraway big-box stores.

    -“Markets are the only solution to any problem” the dominant religion in America.

    Our only hope is that the TeaParty people will actually refuse money where their mouths are, and once the butter dries up, sprawl will become economically unsustainable.  The “real, small town America” that so many conservatives pine for was made up of compact, self sufficient communities that produced their own food and energy.  My relatives’ 100 year old ranch out west has 100 year old windmills, 100 year old gardens, and 100 year old houses on it, but they’re still upset about the wind farm that just went up a few miles away. They’re proud of their homesteading, self sufficient heritage, but would rather keep paying for energy from the other side of the world rather than get it almost for free next door.

  • Anonymous

    These recommendations point out the we don’t actually need some huge technical innovation like cold fusion or superconducting gyroscopes to start addressing global warming or high oil prices, we just need to do some simple, easy things like live and work closer together, telecommute, and encourage century-old technologies like trains and bikes.  The encouraging thing is that many people, especially younger people, would actually prefer to live like this.

  • Anonymous

    They’re too married to their stated goal of making sure Obama (and Democrats in general) can’t accomplish anything at the expense of all else to see beyond the R vs D political game.  It’s like the Monty Python Argument Clinic. (No it isn’t!)

  • Bob Davis

    “Simple, easy things” aren’t simple or easy when dealing with cultural matters.  Many of us who are used to living in our own houses in our own yards would see high-density housing as a step backward.  Likewise, people in general are like politicians: they hate to give up “power” whether it’s political power

    or “horsepower” under the hood and the steering wheel in their hands.

  • Your proposals are good, but you need to give more weight to constructing mass transit. In a large urban area, it’s fantasy to expect most people to live within 10 miles of where they work; they should instead take the train to work, and this requires a national effort at good transit. Buses on major streets should be frequent all day, regional rail should look like an S-Bahn and not like steam-era commuter service, fares and schedules should be integrated across different agencies and modes, and the most important corridors should get subways or light rail.

    Also, why keep the mortgage deduction at all? All it does is induce people to spend more on owner-occupied housing. Since a tax deduction is technically (if not rhetorically) equivalent to taxing the opposite, what we’re talking about is a tax on renters.

  • Station44025,

    There are so many cultural and psychological barriers to change that in all likelihood a series of catastrophes will have to hit before we are able to make any headway at all. I fear it won’t be until there are gasoline shortages, rolling blackouts, food shortages, refugees from flooded and/or famine stricken countries, and severe and constant climate-induced disruptions in the US (fires, hurricanes, droughts, pest blights, heat waves, flooding, storm surges, etc.) that we’ll begin to take action in this country. And by then, so much of climate change will be baked in the cake, so to speak, and the reduced energy available to us at that point will make it even more difficult to transition to a new energy infrastructure.

    Alon Levy
    Indeed mass transit is important! (I did mention investing in public transit infrastructure a number of times.) However, even conveying someone on mass transit takes energy, and the farther you have to convey them, the more energy it takes. Unless some magic form of energy appears that no one knows about yet, the EROEI (the energy returned on energy invested) of all forms of energy that could be called sustainable is much lower than the glory days of fossil fuels. By necessity this lower energy future will require greater density in habitation. I agree that all people can’t be expected to live within 10 miles of their work, but many can, and it certainly can be strongly encouraged. The sprawl we have now has been explicitly encouraged by the creation of free roads, cheap gas, and the “drive till you qualify” attitude towards housing. We have to come to appreciate that going great distances every day is an energetic luxury, and that there are competing priorities for that energy. Today’s hundred-mile round-trip commute by car is undoubtedly an ecological disaster, but even by public transit it’s going to be more untenable over time.

    As to the home mortgage tax deduction, it’s true that it can be seen as unfair to renters. However, it is something that most people in suburbia would pay immediate attention to if tinkered with. So it would be less about fairness and more about getting people to change their behavior quickly. In the end, I don’t think most of us can even comprehend the horrible unfairness that lies ahead with energy depletion and climate change. World-wide, it will inevitably be the poorest and most vulnerable who will suffer most.

  • Anonymous

    Fair enough. I just meant technologically simple–we don’t need to wait for aliens to land and save us with a magical energy source, we can start picking tons of low hanging fruit right now.  I’m a bit more optimistic about the cultural issues, as self sufficiency and “can-do” are supposed to foundations of the American psyche.  Environmentalism has gotten dragged into the culture war, which is not actually about culture, but rather a tool used by various powerful interests to promote their agendas.  I think it’s possible to make sensible choices within the context of American cultural values (as impossible as the cable news networks make that seem.)

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