Monday, August 20, 2007

Waves of Grain

Driving from Virginia to Minnesota over the last few days provided numerous reminders of the nation's de facto transportation energy strategy and the challenges entailed in shifting it. At least in the heartland, the cumulative effect of the last thirty years of policy is epitomized by long lines of big SUVs whizzing along at 75 miles per hour past endless fields of corn. Even after four years of high energy prices, the strongest consensus available is around adding more of the latter, rather than addressing the former, all to the mantra of "energy independence." We're fooling ourselves, in more ways than one.

Every time I pick on the idea of energy independence, someone points out that it isn't a bad long term goal. From a strategic planning perspective, however, long-term goals that don't credibly connect to real actions and outcomes are at best a distraction. At the same time, energy security--my preferred formulation for the concept--is still too abstract for most people, because it involves a complex brew of geopolitics, market dynamics, and trade-offs. I can't avoid the conclusion that at this stage, we'd be better off with a few simple goals, based on some verifiable statements of fact.

For example:
  • Halt the growth in US oil imports, then reduce them based on a series of attainable targets. For more than 20 years, US oil production and consumption have been going in opposite directions, for reasons including government policy, geology, and consumer choice. Any strategy for stemming the growth of imports must have both a supply and demand component, along the following lines:

  • Stabilize domestic oil production and expand our liquid fuels by stimulating production of biofuels, unconventional hydrocarbons, and conventional petroleum. The US may be the most explored and exploited oil province on the planet, but there are still significant reserves of oil to be produced, as part of a planned transition to the next generation of transportation energy. (I'll be writing more on this subject later in the week.) Unconventional hydrocarbons (coal-to-liquids, shale, etc.) have a role to play, though they should be required to produce no more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil, initially, and eventually much lower. Biofuels can contribute to our net energy balance, but not if they're used to prop up the production of large, inefficient vehicles.

  • End the growth in transportation energy consumption through conservation and improved efficiency. Since the US population and vehicle fleet are still increasing, that means that per-capita consumption would have to start to fall, and vehicle efficiency to rise, as soon and by as much as practical. There are many possible carrots and sticks that could be employed. Closing the so-called SUV loophole in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (CAFE) would be an excellent symbolic starting point, but we need to recognize that CAFE is the scorecard, not the means of reaching it.

Stemming the growth of oil imports may not sound very glamorous, and it probably wouldn't make a good campaign slogan, but compared to "energy independence" it has the virtue of being achievable using current technology, without assuming any miracles. It's also a logical and necessary milestone on our way to any more ambitious energy targets. And unlike some of the more xenophobic notions emanating from politicians and pundits, it would almost certainly be welcomed by both our suppliers and our fellow consuming nations, with whom we ought to be cooperating on a global concept of energy security.

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