Fuel Efficiency, Mass Transit Key to Arizona's Future

Arizona Star editorial view: With Big Oil on the defensive over biofuels, alternatives are essential.

Published: 01-Jun-2007

The financial future does not look bright for consumers or government institutions, such as school districts, that use large amounts of gas. Federal energy policy and trends in the oil industry suggest that alternative means of transportation are essential to the future of Tucson and Arizona.

For consumers, the future seems to hold three alternatives:

  • We can reconcile ourselves to very high prices and accept that a larger portion of the household budget must be set aside for gas.

  • Or we can take a financial loss by selling off gas guzzlers and buying more fuel-efficient cars or hybrids.

  • Or we can abandon cars completely and begin using mass transit, a suggestion that, at the moment, has no practical value in most Arizona communities.

    The latest news reports warn that the current fuel shortages may become a long-term problem because of the federal government's push to accelerate the production of biofuels like ethanol.

    According to this line of thinking, some oil company executives say, if federal policy leads to a reduction in the demand for gas, it discourages oil companies from building new refineries or increasing production.

    It would be unwise, they suggest, to invest large amounts of money into refineries that process fossil fuels when those refineries are likely to become fossils themselves in the foreseeable future.

    There is no escaping the irony, of course: If the nation implements the program outlined by President Bush in his State of the Union address, we would increase production of bio-fuels and improve the fuel efficiency of gasoline engines. The goal, the president said, is to reduce the nation's use of gasoline by 20 percent within 10 years. In this process, we reduce our demand for gasoline and by extension reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

    We also make a contribution to reducing global warming believed responsible for climate change.

    So what may have a positive effect, in terms of the environmental impact of reducing global warming emissions, ends up having an allegedly negative impact on oil companies' balance sheets.

    A May 24 story in The New York Times quoted John D. Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil Co., as saying, "If the national policy of the country is to push for dramatic increases in the biofuels industry, this is a disincentive for those making investment decisions on expanding capacity in oil products and refinishing."

    Having fewer refineries translates into less gas at the pump. If the demand remains high and the supply low, prices will become much worse than they are today — on Tuesday the average price for regular was $3.01 per gallon. That scenario appears inevitable, since there seems to be no quick and easy transition to cleaner-burning fuels and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

    All of which suggests there is some urgency in the development of alternative means of transportation. Plans for modern streetcars, light rail and commuter rail lines, along with a much wider web of bicycle paths, will be necessary.

    Today, there is little evidence to justify the optimism that always pushed mass transit to the back burner, especially in the burgeoning cities of the West.

    Current political and economic factors now provide the clarity that tells us to plan and build transportation systems for a future when the internal combustion engine is little more than an anachronism.

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