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Kicking a bad habit is hard to do

By Erik Wilkins-McKee

Posted February 2, 2007

In his State of the Union address, Pres. George W. Bush asked Congress to set a goal to reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years.

He wants to do this through a five-fold increase in the production of ethanol by 2017, as well as reforming mileage standards for cars, and increasing funds for research on clean diesel, better batteries for hybrids, and biofuels. For Pres. Bush, and for many in Washington, this is a national security matter, intimately related to the war on terror and instability in the Middle East.

I argued in a recent column that a wider war in the Middle East might be just the shot in the arm that would move us to a radically new, and more rational, energy policy — albeit even that might not work quickly enough to make a difference. If you disagree with me, it’s still hard to argue that the bundle of proposals the president made in his address are a cure-all for our energy problem, or for the threat of global climate change — which Pres. Bush recognized as a “serious challenge.” Here’s why.

In the current issue of Orion, James Howard Kunstler argues that the basic problem with most of our attempts to imagine the future is that we begin from the premise that technology will somehow allow us to continue living exactly as we do now. Indeed, the president stated categorically that the way out of our looming problem is technology. But Kunstler is onto something, since petroleum and methane gas, not cotton, are the fabrics of our lives.

Distillates from those two fossil fuels are in our clothing, our shampoo, our toothpaste, and the vinyl siding and linoleum of our homes. We practically eat them as well, in the form of the pesticides and fertilizers that are a standard part of modern industrial agriculture, and without the vast transportation network of roads, our diets would be restricted much more to regional growing seasons and crops. Even organic food gets driven to us, often after being produced with the help of machinery. Oil makes our cities sustainable.

Most important is, of course, transportation. When OPEC started its oil embargo in the 1970s, Pres. Gerald Ford and Pres. Jimmy Carter responded by working to mandate mileage standards for cars and light trucks, instituting the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, and lowering the speed limit. People began buying more fuel-efficient cars in response to rising gasoline prices. The combination of high prices and government-mandated mileage standards worked to get us out of the woods, right?

Well, no. Everyone knows that over time prices fell, the speed limit was raised, more people bought SUVs and pick-ups as their primary family vehicles, and now on average we get lower mileage for the existing fleet than we did in the late 1970s. Additionally, our extraction technology is better, so as the price of each barrel rises today, prohibitively expensive methods become feasible. But that’s not all. Oil use has increased for two other reasons as well, ones that are not discussed as much.

During the past 30 years, the number of miles people in this country drive per year has risen steadily. The distance of the average commute to work has risen, the distance to shopping centers has risen, and neighborhoods are built without sidewalks, with the front doors of houses sometimes obscured by the garages. Thus, improving mileage standards and moving slowly to other fuels will cut consumption, but not growth in consumption — at least for some time.

This leads to the second problem. Perhaps if we all buy hybrids and replace the 300 million cars on the road in the United States that burn on gasoline alone — next year — then the cost savings and the drop in usage will prove me a PollyAnna. Yet, just as we don’t consider the hidden, compounding effect of driving less efficient cars longer distances, neither do we factor in fleet replacement. According to a 2004 study by researchers at the Department of Energy, the truck fleet in this country turns over entirely every 10-15 years, and the automobile and light truck fleet in 9-14 years. Add to that the fact that hybrids are currently a tiny fraction of U.S. auto sales; until they dominate the market we will be pushing forward the date when we can really get away from oil.

We do indeed have an “addiction to oil,” which was the president’s tag line in last year’s State of the Union speech. And like the heroin addict going cold turkey, breaking our habit is going to hurt. But, you ask, how does peak oil factor in? And, what about quick transitions to ethanol and biofuels? And, the threat of global climate change? Those are for a future column.

Erik Wilkins-McKee is a political theorist living, writing, and editing in Putney.