Obama’s Clean Energy Vision for Transportation

In his speech to the nation last night, President Obama connected the dots between a healthy, vibrant economy and clean energy. He pointed out that our oil dependence continues to gravely threaten our security and economy, that our ill auto industry -- which supplies millions of jobs -- must produce fuel-efficient vehicles to be a viable industry and that we must deploy clean energy to avoid the "ravages of climate change." In other words, dramatically cutting our use of oil will strengthen our economy and safeguard our environment.

For nearly 100 years, the United States has operated its transportation system with primarily one fuel: oil. As a result, the transportation sector is now the second largest source of U.S. global warming pollution, contributing 28 percent of all emissions. The total amount of transportation emissions is the product of three major factors: the carbon intensity of the fuels used, the fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet, and the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT). To solve global warming and kick the oil habit cost-effectively, we need policies that address all three areas.

President Obama calls for "cap on carbon pollution." A cap that declines over time is vital to ensure that we reach the low emission levels (an 80% reduction from current levels by 2050) necessary to avoid dangerous climate change. The cap should cover all sectors of the economy including transportation fuels.

Coupled with the cap must be performance-based standards that overcome obstacles to innovation. Unfortunately, in the transportation sector, a cap-driven carbon price is insufficient to achieve needed reductions (at $45/metric ton of CO2, gas prices climb about 40 cents). President Obama's energy plan calls for putting one million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015. However, these vehicles will not come to market in large enough numbers without the clear requirements of fuel economy and emissions standards; they should at least equivalent to California standards implemented nationally in the near-term and becoming more stringent over time.

Similarly, Congress should enact performance standards on fuels that shift us away from oil and other dirty, high carbon alternatives (like tar sands) toward clean, low carbon biofuels and electricity. A low carbon fuel standard is an essential policy for the new energy economy and should include the fuels for our cars and trucks as well as aviation and marine fuels.

Congress should also require performance standards for regional planning. Federal investments in regional transportation infrastructure, housing and commercial development should be tied to plans that achieve reductions in global warming pollution. A new California law (S.B. 375) provides the policy framework and encourages development that gives people more transportation choices such as mass transit, safe pedestrian and bike ways and more livable communities near work and stores.

We must invest in clean energy to revive our economy and keep it strong. President Obama proposes $15 billion a year to develop and deploy big-change technologies such as advanced vehicle batteries, sustainable biofuels and wide-spread transit infrastructure. An economy-wide emissions cap provides the funding and performance standards drive innovation needed for the clean energy economy. The opportunity is in front of us.