Why haven’t we achieved energy independence (and controlled climate change)?

Last night at Boston University, a group of speakers talked about our dependence on oil. The forum panelists explored the reasons for getting off oil — which are many — and the approaches to getting off oil: better cars, better fuels, less driving.

But the forum didn’t really get to the important question: Why haven’t we already gotten off of oil? Jon Stewart’s framing of this question is as powerful as it is amusing, although his answer is only more humor.

My take is that getting off oil involves lifestyle changes that most of us aren’t really ready to make. We are in denial about how much damage we are doing through our oil consumption — just as most drunks can’t fully face the damage they are doing by drinking and can’t leave the lifestyle that supports their drinking. We haven’t made much progress on climate change because we really haven’t gotten motivated to do so yet.

I went on in that talk to argue that we had to reframe the urgency of fossil fuel reduction around security issues — just as real, but more compelling than environmental issues. The thrust of Stewart’s point is that national security framing, which many Presidents have tried, may not really be that much more compelling. On the other hand, both the environmental and the national security arguments for aggressive action on fossil fuel seem to be getting stronger every year. So, the fact that we haven’t gotten serious in the past may not mean that we won’t in the future . . .

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

6 replies on “Why haven’t we achieved energy independence (and controlled climate change)?”

  1. Will, I think it all comes down to a price signal, and let the market figure out where the lifestyle changes will be. If we phase in a carbon tax, and give people some idea of what’s likely to become more expensive, they’ll allocate money and carbon where they see fit. The price signal makes it really easy to figure out if it is better to (say) buy locally, or to avoid buying meat, or to favor poultry over beef.

    This assumes you get buy-in for a carbon tax, of course. The guys who run the coal industry, they might see a larger lifestyle choice than most of us.

    The initial taxes I’ve heard proposed, enough to make a difference in industrial GHG emissions, are in the ballpark of $40 per ton of CO2, which is about the same as an addition $40 for every hundred gallons of gasoline or fuel oil. We’ve paid a higher price than that in years past.

    As to why-do-I-ride-my-bike, even though there is no carbon tax yet — I don’t see that as being especially costly, or much of a sacrifice. I need the exercise, I hate traffic jams, I don’t much like the hassle of parking. Superinsulating my house, or installing adequate solar hot water for home heating (is that even possible up here?), that would be a costly sacrifice, with oil at its current price.

  2. I agree with David – this is a Market-force issue. I’d love see us off of foreign-everything, including oil, bannas, oranges, wheat, cheap clothes, etc, but let’s face it – we now live in a global economy. Market forces will drive the creation of alternative energy as the oil supply dwindles. We’ve seen this already – in fact, it’s getting harder to improve environmental impact in cars because they are already so good (in comparison to cars of even 10 years ago). Want better environment? Let’s have more tax credits for purchase of new cars! (A modest proposal 🙂

    The fact is, there are plenty of alternatives to oil out there, but none of them are economically viable (yet). The environmental impact of some are good, some are negative (like spending more carbon-footprint and disposal costs for a Prius than for a Suburban). In complex systems, the enforcement of unrelated external costs, especially proposed taxes, such as a carbon tax, may excellerate the move to alternatives, but what’s the point? We’re going there anyway. There’s only a finite supply of oil. we all know this and we all know that someday we’ll be paying $10+ per gallon for alternative fuels, but why rush it? It hurts the economy at a time that it’s already down.

    I love the environment. I want to see us treat it well, but you what? I also depend on the economy and I want it to treat us well. Market forces work. Let them work in this case with no government meddling.

    1. Rich,

      My thinking is that it is pretty important to cut greenhouse emissions as soon as possible, and so I would be happy to see some sort of CO2 tax (*). There are some other issues to sort out — for instance, maybe we need some sort of regulation for “large” items, such that the manufacturers must take them off our hands when we are done with them, so that if the Prius is in fact costly to get rid of, then it would be part of the up-front cost, and thus part of the signal (I’ve heard that the disposal costs for a Prius are not high enough to care about, but rather than argue, build that into the price, and then it would be plain to see).

      This is not a new idea — my employer, formerly-Sun-now-Oracle, and other computer manufacturers, have been taking back old equipment and recycling it for years now, and the efficiently-recyclable fraction of modern computers (meaning, how much of them can be turned into new computer parts in a cost-effective way) is something like 95% or 98% — and rising. They sweat details like “does the adhesive for this sticky contaminate the plastic when we recycle it?” I think this started in Europe and perhaps Japan; we were late to the party, but once you’ve done the engineering to allowing recycling, you might as well use it everywhere.

      (*) the pro/con on this are, as I understand it, that if we’re pretty sure that we’re at or near peak oil, then soon enough we’ll burn it all anyway, and CO2 has such a longer residence time in the atmosphere that stretching it out a couple of decades doesn’t really matter, so why not just burn it now. The counter (#1) to that is that there’s a huge lag in experiencing the effects of CO2 emissions (because of time it takes to heat the ocean), and burning at a high rate means that once we hit a point where we start to experience real problems (say, widespread and persistent drought, or repeated killer heat waves — and I think these things are predicted for the central US, the Mediterranean, and big chunks of China) we’ll be in for decades of even worse. Burning at a lower rate means that when real problems hit, and we presumably (finally) take really tough steps to cut back, things won’t become quite so awful in the decades that follow. Counter (#2) is that peak oil in an otherwise healthy economy, is not a fun thing; energy prices will spike nastily, and some of the adjustments we’ll need to make (changing where we live, building more non-auto infrastructure, insulating houses better) cannot be done at the drop of a hat.

      There’s another set of things we could do, besides an outright CO2 tax and mandated take-backs for large goods, and that is adjusting things like auto insurance, and road tolls, both in ways to both increase economic efficiency, and probably to discourage driving, but not to directly tax carbon. In the case of auto insurance (the legally required liability, etc), it is apparently priced as a large fixed sum, plus a small surcharge per reported mile. And even if the surcharge is not that small, it is decoupled from the mile. But you could buy it per-mile — either through a gas tax, or through a black box that records miles driven. The reason to do it this way is that it is actually a large number — people who drive small cars not that many miles a year (people like me) pay the equivalent of over a dollar per gallon of gasoline, for insurance. With the current pricing scheme, if I choose not to drive so much, I don’t get that money back (or, I don’t get much of it back). If it was charged per-mile, I would.

      For congested roads (e.g., 128, rush hour, certain directions), if you could pay for a reserved slot on the road so that you traveled quickly to your destination around a particular time, would you? Fewer cars would be on the road, they would travel more quickly, emissions would go down. The pricing is an incentive to (for example) do carpooling to split the cost, and the (almost) guaranteed free movement of traffic ensures that any busses using the roads also move quickly — that makes them a more interesting alternative. The money collected either goes back to reducing other taxes so as to be revenue-neutral, or to construct additional infrastructure to provide alternatives to roads and cars (better bicycle facilities, better access to commuter rail stops, a subway line extension, whatever turns out to make the most sense).

  3. Yikes David – there’s some pretty radical proposals there, some I could live with, some are just anti-economy and (gosh darn it) some sounds like socialism. We can disagree as to the effects of greenhouse gas and anthropogentic global warming, but the I certainly agree that “responsible displosal plans” need to be built into large scale purchases – cars, airplanes, batteries and such – just as computer equipment is currently legislated. It’s part of the use of the item, it just makes sense.

    Privatized rooads sound like a good idea….except…I would point you to California to see how experiments in road privatization have (or have not) worked. The concept is appealing, but the implementation generally means that public roads generally suffer.In addition, since public transport is generally as much of a poluter as private 9once you consider the shifting of energy production and transmission latency) that it’s nto even clear that incentivizing less driving is such a good idea. A better idea is to find cleaner energy. Which happens when “dirty” energy gets too expensive as a natural consequence of economics.

    BTW, I beleive if you check, there are already low milage discounts for autos, although your point is well taken – there should probably be incentives for fewer miles per year.

  4. I heard just yesterday of an auto insurance program that better rewards lower miles per year. Sorry I don’t remember which company.

    I agree we have a lot of waking up to do on sustainability from an environmental and security perspective plus there is much that we lack in terms of fulfillment and enjoyment of life despite prosperity. Much of it is symptomatic and furthered by a highly consumptive lowest cost approach to purchases not thinking up or downstream of the ramifications for our own quality of life never mind people and the planet. In the public sphere we also have too little thought and knee jerk blame-the-others approach to “citizenship” We are truly blessed that in the midst of so much blaming of politicians in our culture to have smart, courageous people like Will who dedicate so much to public service.

    I’m encouraged as of late by discourse and dialog on the web and what I hear between the lines in people’s hearts. Thanks all for you thoughts on this.

    Peace and blessings and all the best of the Holidays to all!!

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