Moving Cooler: How to Drive Down Oil Dependence and Pollution

 Since at least President Nixon, our leaders have been calling for energy independence. And yet our reliance on imported oil keeps rising, and while our top trading partners are friendly countries like Canada we also rely on unfriendly regimes such as Russia and Venezuela. How to tackle the threat?

The short answer, boring as it sounds, is public policy, specifically policies that drive vehicle fuel economy standards, alternative fuel development and transportation infrastructure investments. Policy establishes many of the ground rules that determine transportation's role in economic growth, energy use and environmental protection. And given its importance, solid research and analysis should underpin all policy.

Thankfully vehicle technology and substitute energy sources for vehicles (such as biofuels and electricity) have been examined by groups including NRDC for years. In fact, my colleague Luke Tonachel and I recently co-wrote a chapter on plug-in hybrids for a book by newly-minted Assistant Secretary of Energy David Sandalow.

What's been missing is a comprehensive assessment of techniques for saving fuel and reducing greenhouse gas emissions beyond car technology. Until now.

I'm happy to report that a new book was just unveiled yesterday, called Moving Cooler: Transportation Policies for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions (see especially the great PowerPoint presentation link at the lower right of the new web site). This is the culmination of nearly a year's worth of work, led by NRDC and involving a diverse group of about a dozen sponsors including the American Public Transportation Association, the Federal Highway Administration, and Shell Oil.

Thanks to all this effort, this first-of-its-kind study looks at nearly 50 measures and combinations thereof, assessing their potential to save fuel, reduce heat-trapping pollution and save consumers money. While there is ample material to occupy researchers and policymakers as they hammer out plans to combat climate change, three bullets sum up the reports most interesting findings.

  • Provide consumers with an estimated average savings in direct vehicle costs of up to $112 billion annually over a 40-year timeframe, with five of the six policy combinations examined in-depth averaging $72 billion in savings annually. We all know that our cars and trucks are expensive, requiring many painful trips to the gas pump and repair shop over their (and our) lifetimes. Less wear-and-tear on our vehicles translates into massive savings, cumulatively in the trillions of dollars.
  • Reduce fuel consumption that translates to a savings of at least 110 million barrels of oil a year. At maximum levels of deployment, these savings could yield as much as 660 million barrels per year, or about 1.81 million barrels of oil a day (more than we import currently from Russia and Venezuela combined).
  • Achieve annual GHG emission reductions of up to 24% below baseline levels in 2050, by changing current transportation systems and operations, travel behavior, land use patterns, and public policy and regulations.

This analysis helps fill in a huge gap in our knowledge and understanding about the fuel-saving and emission-cutting potential of transportation infrastructure policies, helping to bring it up closer to the level of analysis of potential for vehicle tech and alternative fuels. I hope you check it out, and that it spurs much additional research, and more important that its lessons show up in the both the climate and transportation bills making their way through Congress right now.