Not that I expect the Globe to publish this letter….
August 7, 2011
Best defense is a good offense, right?
Jeff Jacoby cherry-picks his data to mislead and discourage.
Improving fuel economy does not inevitably lead to greater consumption.
In 1973 we consumed 17.3 Mbbl/day of petroleum, with a population of 212 million.
Imports accounted for 6.2 Mbbl, domestic production accounted for 9.2 Mbbl (not sure about the missing 2 Mbbl, this is from the US Energy Information Administration website). Per capita we consumed 0.082 barrel/day of oil.
Per capita, oil consumption is down since 1973.
In 2005 we hit our all-time peak oil consumption of 20.8 Mbbl/day — but with a population of 296 million. Per capita, 0.07 barrel/day of oil, or 14% less. Imports are up (13.7 Mbbl/day), partly because of increased demand, but more because domestic production is down (5.2 Mbbl/day)
Obtaining actual energy independence is indeed a difficult job, both because our population continues to grow, and because we have consumed much of our easily-available domestic supply. We can see that this will be difficult, not because our imports are increasing, but because imports are such a large fraction of our total consumption.
Nonetheless, failing to perfectly achieve our goal can still have good effects. If we had maintained 1973 per-capita consumption, we would import 3 million barrels more each day. That consumption would drive oil prices even higher, further compounding the damage to our trade balance. There is room for improvement, and the new efficiency goals recognize this, and our experience since 1973 demonstrates we will not convert all this additional efficiency into an equal amount of additional driving. Driving takes time, and there are only so many hours in a day to drive.
We can certainly do more to cut consumption. More efficient automobiles help, but better yet is to use them more efficiently. With the advent of social networks and more cars appearing that are linked to the internet, “casual carpooling” could be made easier and more organized. This provides a quick, low-cost, and ample boost to passenger-mpg. There are already startups attempting to make money on this opportunity. Another choice is to avoid driving altogether for shorter trips. This doesn’t work for everyone, but many cities and towns within 128 are quite dense and manageable on smaller, slower vehicles such as bicycles and scooters. This has the additional advantage of reduced traffic and parking demand for people who are still stuck in cars. What lacks there is the infrastructure and driver awareness necessary to make more people feel that this is a safe and comfortable option. If we are sincere in our intention to achieve energy independence, we’ll do all these things, and more. Domestic production might still fall short, but we’d be better off for trying.
If we were serious about energy independence, we would in fact need to do “everything”. Bicycle infrastructure to get people out of cars altogeher, more efficient cars, ubiquitous ride-sharing, congestion charges, and as many costs amortized on a per-mile basis as possible (auto insurance is a large cost, per-mile, but you could also accumulate money in a “repair account”). Double the efficiency, double the passengers per car, convert 20% of “trips” to bicycle or electric scooters. Convert cars to e-cars wherever possible, turn those into smart-loads and storage so that they charge when energy is available, and supply energy in a pinch when it is needed. Revert to trains for long-haul containerized cargo as much as possible, use trucks for short-haul at the end-points. Don’t bet on ethanol till we get cellulosic conversion working, on some crop that we can grow sustainably with little water and fertilizer (not corn).