Friday, June 20, 2008

Carfull or Carfree?

Two very distinct visions of the future were presented to Americans this week.

John McCain and George Bush, at the behest of conservatives and oil lobbies, called for a massive increase in offshore oil drilling to relieve high gas prices, currently hovering around $4 a gallon nationwide. Republicans claim that if the states and people who want to protect the nation’s coasts would just get out of the way, relief is just around the corner.

According to Bush/McCain plan, the solution to high gas prices is to open protected offshore waters to oil drilling, begin drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and expanding the development of oil shale.

As a way to relieve working people of high gas prices, this proposal is of course, hogwash. Not only would it take a decade or more to bring this new oil to market, drilling does nothing to halt the speculation and profiteering currently taking place in the international oil markets.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California put her finger on the cravenness of the GOP proposal saying the Bush/McCain plan was "literally written by the oil industry — give away more public resources."

Responding to this charade, the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers of America, standing in front of a wind turbine at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland, announced their joint endorsement of Barrack Obama saying, “he is the leader who will put America on the path to a clean energy economy that creates and keeps millions of jobs, spurs innovation and opportunity, and makes us a more secure nation."

But what does this more secure nation look like?

During the same week, out in Portland, Oregon, the International Towards Carfree Conference 2008 presented a very different view of America’s future. In the mind of carfree activists, Portland is the American city of the future, a city where sustainability is being built into the infrastructure, a place where streets are being reclaimed from the private automobile and returned to the people.

The problem with high gas prices isn’t how much gas costs as much as how much gas you use. To save money on gas a family must aim to reduce their VMT. Transportation shorthand for "vehicle miles traveled." A person who drives 50 miles a day will spend a much greater percentage of their paycheck on gas than a person who drives 10 miles a day, a person who rides transit or walks to work can save even more.

In Portland, per capita VMT has decreased 12-14% in the last decade, while driving continues to increase in most other cities around the nation. Portland saves $2.6 billion a year by not driving so much. And that money stays in the community, rather than being sent to an oil companies headquartered in Houston, Abu Dhabi, or Moscow. Portlanders, it seems, would rather spend their money locally on gallon of microbrew, than a gallon of gasoline. The massive cranes rebuilding downtown Portland shows that keeping money in the community is a sound investment strategy.

If Portland can redesign itself for an era after cheap oil, any city can do it. It's just a matter of political courage.

Here is a great introduction to Portland’s transportation investments and why they work.


Dave Sohigian said...

Okay, this is going to sound crazy, but the offshore drilling idea might not be all that bad, especially if it takes 10 years to come online. First off I should mention that my family of four lives carfree (in Portland, OR, where else?) and I definitely want to see an end to our ridiculous oil consumption. But if oil has really peaked then we need to make sure we have some time to alter our behaviors to be more sustainable. Even though we ride our bikes, take public transport, heat our house with B99, our family still uses a ton of petroleum. This laptop alone used a quite a bit to be created.
We need much better alternatives than using a precious resource like petroleum for transportation. High gas prices WILL motivate change in people and corporations (since they are motivated to sell stuff), but if the prices rise too high too fast it could be a real problem. Also, we need petroleum to make all sorts of stuff, even if we stop using it for transportation. Petroleum based products can be sustainable (William McDonough talks about this in "Cradle to Cradle") but we need to start seeing that resource a limited and precious.
Back to offshore drilling. Although it is not even close to a solution for the current crisis, and I don't know about the potential for environmental damage, we may need that oil in 10 years. Not to power cars, but to create solar panels, wind turbines, etc... So even though their motivation is ridiculous and motivated by oil lobby money, it might not be such a bad idea.
Did I just suggest an idea from the GOP might turn out to be a good thing? It had to happen eventually.

Anonymous said...

The high cost of gas is due to speculation in the oil markets.

We shouldn't despoil our coasts, we should regulate the Enron-style trading in energy.

Dave Sohigian said...

Warren Buffet seems to think that speculation is not the cause:
"Buffett said he disagrees with the idea that speculation was driving oil prices higher. At least nine bills proposing limits on that oil speculation have been introduced in Congress in recent weeks."
I hope he is right in this instance. I agree on avoiding despoiling our coasts, but I think it is inevitable once the price of petroleum gets high enough. At $25/gallon we are going to be drilling/sifting/diving for every last drop we can get. I am not saying that is a good thing.