Environmental Issues: Transportation

For more than a century, America has relied almost entirely on a single fuel to move goods and people around the country: oil. Our transportation sector gobbles up 70% of the oil we use and produces one-third of our global warming pollution. This habit has become a dangerous addiction that threatens our national security, our climate and our economic prosperity.

We import about half our oil, much of it from unfriendly or unstable parts of the world, or from countries like Canada that are producing increasingly dirtier forms of oil. Our oil dependence shackles us to a massive, volatile, global oil marketplace, leaving us vulnerable to price spikes. Increasing domestic oil production, no matter how much or where we drill, would yield a drop in the barrel compared to our consumption.

Boosting Clean Biofuels and Electricity


Good sources of biofuels include sustainably farmed switchgrass, a native perennial grass capable of producing high yields on otherwise non-forested, fallow land.

Running our cars and trucks on cleaner fuels, including biofuels and electricity, is a critical part of developing a new energy economy. Biofuels, made from plant materials instead of petroleum, can be a clean, renewable energy resource if they're grown right. The key to our success is promoting the development of the best biofuels – the ones that reduce global warming pollution and protect the environment. These biofuels might be made, for example, from agricultural waste or a non-food, native plant like switchgrass that is grown on unproductive land.

Advanced biofuels like these, however, have yet to be produced on a large scale. One way to help propel them out of the lab and into our gas tanks is by ending nearly $16 billion dollars in annual subsidies for fossil fuels and corn ethanol and investing in advanced biofuels instead, with a goal of getting 1 billion gallons of the best fuel to the pumps by 2014.

Electricity is another important low-carbon fuel that can power part of our vehicle fleet and help protect consumers from gas price spikes. Even on today's electric grid, a car that runs on electricity creates less global warming pollution than a conventional car. And as our electrical grid becomes greener, plug-in vehicles will get greener, too, cutting pollution even more.

Stopping Dirty Fuels

Stopping dirty alternatives, such as fuels made from tar sands, liquid coal and oil shale, is also critical. When oil prices are high, extracting petroleum from these unconventional sources looks attractive - if you ignore their environmental costs. These destructive fuels are two to five times as polluting to produce as oil because their extraction and manufacturing processes are so energy-intensive. Extracting these fuels harms ancient forests and bird habitat, and puts water supplies at risk.

Yet the oil and gas lobby is working hard to downplay the risks and make these dirty fuels part of our new energy plan. Unless dirty fuel subsidies are eliminated and new rules encouraging low-carbon fuels are put into place, the environmental benefits of clean fuel production risk being wiped out by a wave of dirty fuels.

last revised 4/27/2011

Get Updates and Alerts

See the latest issue >

Switchboard Blogs

Proposing an Overdue Oil and Climate Security Fee
posted by Deron Lovaas, 2/5/16
The Story of the Little Tokyo that Could...and Will
posted by Shelley Poticha, 1/26/16
Clearing the Air in India's Polluted Cities
posted by Anjali Jaiswal, 1/15/16
Give the Gift That Will Make a Difference: Clean Energy Boost

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |
Find NRDC on