Friday, March 25, 2011

Rethinking Transportation

As oil prices reach a two and a half year high, America's oil dependence--recently highlighted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico--is once again apparent.  About seventy-two percent of oil used in the United States is for transportation, and approximately ninety-four percent of our energy for transportation comes from oil; natural gas and renewable fuel sources provide only about six percent of the energy that flows to the transportation sector according to the Energy Information Administration.

When I teach the regulation of mobile source emissions in Environmental Law, I like to use transportation as an example of each individual's contribution to environmental problems.  Emissions from industry and residential electricity production seem indirect; though we all buy manufactured goods and retail electricity,  the collective emissions from these actions come from a distant source that is easy to ignore.  When we fuel up at the gas pump and turn on the ignition, on the other hand, our individual impact is apparent.  And the EPA reminds us of the consequences of fueling up, observing that "[i]n 2008, transportation sources contributed approximately 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions" and were the "fastest-growing source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 47 percent of the net increase in total U.S. emissions since 1990."

In sum, transportation centrally contributes to America's oil-based woes and climate change problems, and we need to fix it. So far, we've made limited progress.  In 2008, about 1.5 million light duty alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles were on the road.  About 2,700 of these vehicles were electric, and about 325,000 were "gasoline-electric hybrid."  The majority used ethanol as fuel.

Some would have us move quickly toward natural gas vehicles.  On April 13, Natural Gas Vehicles for America plans to display a "wide variety of natural gas-powered vehicles (NGVs) from around the country" in Washington.  With the surge in shale gas production,  abundant quantities of low-carbon natural gas are domestically available.  But if we are slowly moving toward an economy that relies on electricity from renewable energy, should we transform our fueling infrastructure to accommodate natural gas, only to replace this infrastructure with battery stations several decades later?

As with any environmental problem, there is no easy answer.  And current oil prices do not appear to be moving us anywhere near the OPEC crisis of the 70s, where long gas lines inspired serious, although brief, policy changes.  At minimum, the nuclear crisis in Japan, unrest in Libya, and gas prices at home will continue to highlight the energy-environment connection, at least in the short term.    

-Hannah Wiseman

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