Ending Our Oil Dependence

Your house is in order, your neighborhood an ecotopia. Now, how about the rest of the country? I was all set to spend a few hours dreaming up a vision for an energy independent nation, but it turns out Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has already done it. Merkley’s “Now or Never” Oil Independence Plan calls for the United States to go on an 8.3 million barrel-a-day oil diet and eliminate all non-North American foreign oil imports by 2030.

Two recent news items underscore the urgency of the energy crisis. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 13 that the Department of Energy has delayed plans to shore up its crude oil inventories, the accuracy of which has been harshly criticized by an independent consulting firm.  So basically, we have no idea how much oil we’ve got stockpiled.  Imagine if banks didn’t know how much money they were lending and suddenly found themselves insolvent (oh yeah, I guess that happened). It goes without saying that our government needs to know how much oil we’ve got well before the bottom of barrel is in sight.  The other clarion call came from insurance giant Lloyd’s of London, which issued a report last week warning of an impending oil crunch that will have “catastrophic consequences” for businesses caught unprepared for soaring oil prices.

Senator Merkley’s oil diet focuses on fuel efficiency-if we simply incentivize the manufacture of electric vehicles and bring fuel efficiency standards back up to where they were during the 1970s oil crisis, we’ll save 3.2 billion barrels of oil a day. Do the math-3.2 billion barrels of oil painlessly saved and we’re already more than a third of the way there-sweet! Another painless 2 billion barrels a day can be saved with hybrid and fuel-efficient trucks, tractors, trains, planes and other heavy vehicles.

The remaining 3 billion barrels a day will require us to invest in high speed rail (to replace short haul flights) and to redesign our cities for walkability and mass transit. Merkley would also empower the President to appoint a National Council on Energy Security which would work with EPA and the Departments of Energy, Transportation, Commerce and Defense. Good call-a coordinated approach to energy independence is vital.

I would add to Merkley’s plan the need to relocalize food production and distribution (given that the average morsel of food travels 1500 miles from farm to fork) and to invest heavily in building efficiency and renewable sources of electricity. What’s electricity got to do with our oil addiction? Well, if Merkley’s dream of a fleet of hybrid and electric vehicles comes to pass, we certainly don’t want all those vehicles getting charged up on coal. We need a Smart Grid that delivers renewable power to buildings that are prepared to use it efficiently-less electricity squandered on circa-1845 light bulbs, more for plug-in vehicles.

Finally, we need to consider the issue of culture change or, should I say, culture shock. The notion that “it’s a small world after all” is deeply ingrained in our culture-we believe we can go anywhere and obtain products from anywhere whenever we like. But going on an energy diet means shortening supply chains. Surely, chicken wings that fly 6000 miles from Shanghai to San Francisco are not sustainable. And yet, most of us don’t think twice about loading our carts full of cheap imports from Costco and Best Buy.  It may sound like a fool’s errand, but changing our cultural values around consumption is as important to our energy security as putting up solar panels.

Author’s Note: There’s a wonderful book called “It Came from Berkeley” which proudly chronicles the progressive policies and inventions that originated in Berkeley, California (public radio, urban wild lands, integrated schools and, most importantly, California cuisine and hot tubs). We take these things for granted today, but back in the day people dismissed these ideas as unrealistic liberal Berkeley fantasies. As to the 8.3 Million Barrel-a-Day Oil Diet, let’s just say, “It came from Merkley.”

–Erica Etelson

Posted by Danny Kennedy

Danny Kennedy co-founded Sungevity and now serves as strategic advisor. He is an internationally recognized opinion leader on climate and energy issues. He is the author of Rooftop Revolution: How Solar Power Can Save Our Economy - and Planet - from Dirty Energy (2012), a book that has been described as the clean energy manifesto for the next greatest generation.