Driving America Off Oil

Oped by David Friedman, the research director of the Clean Vehicles Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Published: 11-Jan-2006

As an engineer who designs efficient vehicles, I'm frequently asked why we can't just recycle cooking oil and put it in our gas tanks. Wouldn't that help reduce our dependence on foreign oil and save us money?
 

Unfortunately, there are no silver bullets to replace petroleum. Cooking oil, for example, is a limited resource and is only feasible for owners of modified diesel vehicles that produce more smog and toxic pollution than gasoline. That leaves most of us stuck at filling stations, where gas is expensive, polluting and, most likely, imported.

Indeed, every five minutes, the United States spends more than $2 million on imports of oil and other petroleum products. As long as this country relies on oil, we will be susceptible to instability in the Persian Gulf and other regions of the world. Rising oil consumption in China and other developing nations will only make matters worse by stretching supply lines even thinner. In the meantime, our nation will continue to emit more global warming pollution than any other country in the world, with dangerous consequences for our economy, natural heritage and citizens.

No reasonable person would deny that we need a fuel that is "Made in the USA," clean and plentiful. But innovation is required to achieve the breakthroughs that will make such a fuel affordable and widely available. The answer could be fuel cell vehicles powered by hydrogen made from the sun, wind or biomass. It could be hybrids running on ethanol made from grass, rice, straw, corn stalks and other woody products grown in the United States. It could also be battery-electric vehicles that evolve from hybrids that allow drivers to plug in and recharge with renewable electricity. Because all of these alternatives have promise, each one needs federal support to determine which truly offers the best path.

Accelerating innovation will not be a small or inexpensive task, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. To be successful, each alternative to oil will need a clear and reasonable timetable along with milestones to help determine whether it is showing sufficient promise over the next decade or two. And government incentives must recognize the fact that hydrogen, electricity and even biofuels are not inherently clean-they are merely energy carriers that are only as clean as the process that produced them.

That is the promise of alternative fuels. But in the meantime, we will be dependent on oil as a transportation fuel for decades to come. What should be done now?

Improving the efficiency of cars and trucks offers the greatest potential to reduce oil dependence in the near term. It can create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the United States and save consumers billions on fuel. Improving vehicle efficiency is also essential to reducing the amount of land needed to generate the renewable hydrogen, cellulosic ethanol or renewable electricity that could power vehicles in decades to come.

The automobile industry has been investing in technologies that can safely and economically allow consumers to get more miles per gallon in cars, minivans, pickups and SUVs of all shapes and sizes. These technologies include efficient gasoline engines, more efficient transmissions, improved aerodynamics, high-strength steel and tires with lower rolling resistance. The majority of these technologies have no effect on vehicle safety, but some, such as high-strength steel and aluminum and unibody construction, could actually help make highways safer.

By adding only $600-$800 to the sticker price, automakers could offer consumers an SUV that gets the fuel economy of today's family car. For $2,000 more, consumers could have an SUV that gets the fuel economy of a compact car. With gasoline at just two dollars per gallon, this SUV would save each driver more than $6,000 on fuel costs during the vehicle's lifetime, and the technologies needed to get this SUV to more than 35 mpg would pay for themselves in less than four years.

Getting technologies like these into the fleet over the next 10 years and then tapping into the growing potential of hybrid cars and trucks could get us to the point of saving 5 million to 6 million barrels of oil per day by 2025. That would be enough of a reduction to stop the current growth in oil demand and hold us where we are today while we wait for the breakthroughs that are needed for clean and renewable alternatives to oil.

The problem is that automakers are not giving consumers these choices. Instead, for the past 20 years, similar technologies have been used to double horsepower and increase weight by 25 percent. As a result, the average fuel economy of new automobiles is lower today than it was 20 years ago.

The Bush administration recently proposed a change to the structure of fuel economy standards for SUVs, minivans and pickups. The administration's proposal falls short of the technically feasible and economically practical levels described above by a factor of three. It also fails to include any increases for the cars that represent 50 percent of all light-duty automobiles sold today. Finally, the proposal does not close key loopholes in fuel economy regulations and may open up new ones.

A transition to clean, renewable alternatives to oil will be complex, expensive and technically challenging. It will not happen overnight. On the other hand, investing in fuel efficiency to cut oil use-the best option over the next two decades-has often been overlooked and mired in political challenges. Neither of these strategies can succeed on its own, which is exactly the reason why federal, state and local governments must play a role. This is not surprising in light of the fact that the federal government has helped drive every transportation revolution this country has ever seen, whether it came in the form of trains, planes or automobiles.

The next transition will be no different.

This article was originally published by TomPaine.com

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