Looking for Answers in all the Wrong Places

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | May 6, 2010 | Clean Transportation, Energy Policy, Offshore Drilling

If the still-unfolding oil disaster in the Gulf has taught us anything, it’s that we have spent 40 years trying to solve the ‘wrong’ problem.

When 3 million gallons of crude oil bubbled to the surface and spread into a 800 square mile slick off the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969, the public cried foul and demanded an end to such practices.  In response, Big Oil assured us that they could make offshore drilling safer and cleaner while providing America with the oil needed to continue growing our economy and maintaining our lifestyle.  The Gulf oil spill, which commenced 17 days ago and is far from resolved, is clear proof that the American public and policy makers bought both the promise and the premise: that drilling (particularly offshore) could be clean and safe and that offshore drilling was essential.

Daily images from the Gulf Coast, such as this one from the National Wildlife Federation of a sea turtle struggling in oily water, are visual proof just how unclean offshore drilling remains despite ‘advanced technology.’  The deceased and injured workers from the Deepwater Horizon will forever represent the idea that offshore drilling is unsafe.  Unfortunately, we have just as much proof that offshore drilling is unnecessary as a permanent energy source to power economy and our transportation network despite assurances from policy makers, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana or Congressman Ander Crenshaw of Florida, that drilling can be safe and we shouldn’t let this spill prevent future drilling.

Oily Math

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimate that a boost in fuel economy standards to 42 miles per gallon by 2020 (from the current standard of 34.1 mpg by 2016) would save 1.6 million barrels every day – 40 times the current estimates of the BP Gulf spill.

Furthermore, the US currently consumes 25 billion gallons per month.  Based on these rates, data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and analysis by UCS, expanded offshore drilling in the Gulf and the Atlantic would provide less than two months supply over the next 10 years.  On the other hand, the new fuel economy standards announced by the Obama Administration on April 1, 2010 will result in 30 percent increase in new vehicle fuel economy and save approximately 1.2 million barrels per day by 2020.

What If?

What if the United States – motivated by both the Santa Barbara spill of 1969 and the oil embargo of 1973 – had vigorously led the world on a race toward ever-increasing fuel economy standards?  What if the engineers of the 1970s and 1980s had been challenged to ensure all cars (not just a Prius) would get 30, then 40, then 50 miles per gallon of gasoline by 2010 instead of being tasked with the goal of drilling deeper and riskier than ever before to hunt for more oil to fuel our addiction?

Today we must look forward to what can be accomplished in the next 20 to 30 years instead of looking back with regret.  If citizens demand and policy makers implement a complimentary suite of policies that include higher fuel economy standards, incentives for sustainable biofuels, modernized freight transportation systems, and innovative mobility management, then this nation can move away from a transportation system fueled by the Gulf of Mexico and the Persian Gulf, ensuring our children and grandchildren don’t ask the same set of questions of us in 2050.

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