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Transportation Policy

Commentary: Keep Drilling, Stop Driving, Use Oil Wisely

11:04 AM PDT on May 3, 2010

Deep_Horizon_Fire.jpgBP's Deepwater Horizon. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard.

(Editor's note: This is an Op-Ed from Jason Henderson, Geography Professor at San Francisco State University, who is writing a book on the politics of mobility in cities. He grew up
in New Orleans where he spent much time in the coastal wetlands of
Louisiana while also observing the activity of the oil and gas
industry. He has never owned a car.)

For
almost a century my native Louisiana has been expendable when it comes
to America's voracious appetite for oil. Now after over a week of
national media attention, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is
suddenly big enough to bring President Obama down for a disaster tour
this past Sunday.  

No one can say when the gushing river
of oil will stop. But as we watch and ponder this sorry state of
affairs, environmentalists will demand loudly that Obama retract his
earlier proposal to loosen offshore drilling policy. Perhaps they are
right, but like other Americans, most of those same people will likely
keep on driving. So I take this moment to urge environmentalists to
reflect upon their relationship between oil and driving. We need oil
and are lucky as a civilization to be endowed with oil, but most people
are squandering this precious resource by driving.  We need to use oil
more wisely.

I see incredible value in oil.  It is one
of the most utilitarian natural resources known to humans. Oil stores
tremendous amounts of energy, it is very easy to transport long
distances by pipeline, rail, ship, and by truck, and it can sit for a
long time without degrading. It can be refined and distilled easily and
its petroleum by-products are used in plastics and pharmaceuticals, and
are part of the food system.

Wind turbines and solar
panels are made from polymers that come from oil. The new alternative
energy future promoted by environmentalists will be made from oil.
Growing plants to drive cars also requires oil. Oil will be needed to
build new high speed rail lines, bicycle networks, light rail systems,
electric buses, and new ways of organizing work and shopping through
compact urban development. In sum, we'll need to keep drilling for oil
so that we can shift to a more sustainable energy path that
significantly reduces our overall dependence on oil.   

As
many environmentalists point out, we do not need to keep drilling
everywhere. We do not need to keep searching further offshore, or push
into remote, wild areas, or burn toxic tar sands. We need to conserve.
We need to reduce per-capita consumption. But most importantly, we need
to stop driving everywhere for everything so that oil can be used more
intelligently and judiciously.

Roughly
70 percent of the oil America consumes is for transport, and much of
this is for using cars to travel relatively short distances on a
routine, daily basis.  This adds up to over 21,000 miles driven a year
per car.  92 percent of American households own one car, and 62 percent
own two cars.  Currently there are 250 million automobiles in the US,
amounting to 33 percent of the global fleet of cars, and 325 million
vehicles are forecast for 2050.  

There is no source of
energy that will replicate this level of hyper-automobility. Electric
or hydrogen cars will need the oil-equivalent of hundreds of coal or
nuclear power plants which will also take lots of oil to build.  Where
are we going to build all of those power plants? What other places are
expendable? How much greenhouse gases would come from building all of
those power plants and is it worth it simply to keep up routine
driving?  Retrofitting entire cities with new plug-in outlets will
require enormous resources at a time when we can’t even "afford" to
provide basic upkeep to bridges and highways much less sustain a
working public transit system.

The emphasis by many
environmentalists on "green cars" has been an awful distraction.
Replacing 250 million vehicles with hybrid or electric cars will not
cut it. These are oil consuming machines made from polymers derived
from oil and designed to travel under 30 miles a day in an urban
configuration. That oil needs to be conserved and used to make the "big
switch" that we need to survive as a civilization. Any able-bodied
environmentalist that regularly exclaims "but I need to drive!" should
really reflect on what they’re saying.  

Consider the
modest lifestyle changes that can be made towards routine daily
walking, bicycling, and transit. Even in many low-density suburbs in
America, 40 percent of car trips are less than five miles, within a
comfortable spatial range of bicycling. Grocery shopping does not
require a car. One can simply walk, bike, or take transit, and either
come up with creative ways to carry it, or have a jitney service take
care of the delivery.

Consider the co-benefits of
physical activity, health, reduced greenhouse gases, less noise and
less sprawl. In anticipation of rural environmentalists' need to
continue using cars, consider that 80 percent of Americans live in
metropolitan areas, and that many small towns are highly bikeable and
walkable. Most people can do the switch if they think it through.  Car
sharing can provide the mobility needed in the rare instance when a car
is truly required.

Those environmentalists who are still
unwilling to give up driving should at least give up obstructing
change. In supposedly progressive cities like San Francisco, many
self-identified environmentalists balk at removing parking to create
bicycle lanes. Still other self-proclaimed environmentalists oppose
removing car lanes in order to create bus lanes that improve transit
service. In suburban areas many environmentalists spearhead opposition
to compact, modestly dense housing because they view it as a threat to
their convenient driving.  
Environmentalists and political
progressives who insist on driving need to accept that we need to make
it more difficult to drive everywhere, for everything, all of the time.
We charge the poor to ride transit, and keep allowing fares to rise
while gutting service, but many environmentalists have come to expect
cheap and easy driving. The sense of entitlement to drive across the
city at high speed and easily park needs to be rethought. And motorists
need to slow down on our streets so those of us willing to make the
change can do so safely.

Instead of the same-old
approach of "stop drilling," environmentalists need to lead by example,
and stop driving so that we can keep drilling in a thoughtful and
reasonable way that minimizes expansion but enables the shifts needed.
Otherwise environmental outcries about the spill in the Gulf are
difficult to take seriously. There is a car-free and car-lite movement
in America seeking to create spaces to live and work without automobile
dependency. Please join in helping to create those spaces.

And remember, we still need oil to get us there, so we need to use it wisely. 

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