Wednesday, June 15, 2011

An energy strategy for the USA. Be Conserve-ative.

It's often pointed out in angst that 40 years after the Arab oil embargo, the USA still has no energy policy. Our economy and national security depend on energy and everyone seems to agree we need an energy policy, but we can't quite decide what it should be.  We have enacted a patchwork of legislation dealing with vehicle fuel economy standards, electric and hybrid vehicle subsidies, ethanol mandates and subsidies, domestic oil production, etc.. but there is no overall strategy behind it all.   

We have two prevailing schools of thought about the strategy for energy policy but neither will lead the USA to energy independence because they have built-in self correction factors that will act as kill switches.  Conserve-atism is a different strategy altogether that focuses on eliminating wasted fuel consumption, and would not only reduce our greenhouse gas emissions it would increase disposable income, expand the economy to create jobs and even make our commuting safer.     

One of the current prevailing strategies for energy policy is to increase taxes on energy in order to spur investment in more efficient factories and infrastructure, push people to buy fuel efficient and electric vehicles, and coerce people to drive less. Just crank up the fuel taxes and everything will somehow fix itself.   

But the idea that higher fuel taxes will spur investment assumes that there will be no negative impact on the economy from additional taxes sprung on stretched budgets. It assumes the corporations that need to upgrade aged facilities will be able to stay afloat while the economy shrinks around them. It assumes that companies who want to modernize will have access to financing in a struggling economy. It assumes people will be enticed to buy new fuel efficient vehicles even though they are getting squeezed by higher taxes and maybe spooked about their long-term employment prospects. Simply enacting higher fuel taxes will drive demand lower but in doing so it will put a drag on the economic engine that is needed to fund the investment in a new infrastructure. The destination is correct, but the path is wrong.

The other basic strategy is to promote more drilling and refining of oil and other fossil fuels to keep energy prices stable while demand increases to enable economic growth via increased consumption.  This position is based on willful ignorance of climate science and/or disregard for future generations. And by the way it won't work. If we rely on increasing oil production and consumption for economic growth, it might work for a while, but it can't be the long term solution. Oil is a non-renewable resource and as consumption increases, supplies will diminish. This isn't a strategy to base national policy on. It's just grab it while you can before someone else does. It's a looter mentality.

On the other hand, Conserve-atism works to identify and implement all sorts of ways to reduce waste in fuel consumption.    This will lead to downward pressure on oil prices and eventually we will affect demand enough so that oil tankers and storage facilities fill up, creating a glut which will bring a sharp drop in price.   When the price of oil falls from the conservation efforts (increased domestic production would help as well..) it will be a stimulus package for consumers and the entire economy. As the price drops we would enact graduated energy taxes to direct some of the savings to investment in new efficient power and transportation infrastructures that will bring further reductions in energy consumption.  The more we save, the more we would be able to invest in order to save even more. It feeds itself like a vicious circle.  That's  the strategy.    

So how can the government actually help people conserve fuel to create an oil glut?   In a lot of different ways actually.  They make the rules and run the place so we need involvement from all levels of government organizations from politicians to the road crew.  Here are some ideas for initiatives that would reduce waste in fuel consumption.

- Utilize the crews in the cities across America to time the stoplights along the major intersections to keep traffic flowing which will improve all vehicles' mileage by eliminating some of the stops and starts. A side benefit of improved traffic flow would be safer commuting.
- In the neighborhoods where traffic is sparse, replace 4-way stop intersections with alternating yield signs so that drivers can safely proceed through intersections without having to bring their vehicles to a complete stop and waste gas.
- Where there are road construction projects, make sure to plan the work to alleviate traffic snarls in construction zones. 
- Encourage schools and workplaces to promote ride-sharing and car pooling programs. This was a big initiative back in the 70's to conserve fuel but you hardly hear it mentioned these days.  Software and social networks could help people find others with whom to carpool or coordinate chaueferring kids.   
- Reduce the post office delivery to 3 or 4 days per week. 
- Promote school districts that have large transportation costs to convert to 4-day weeks.  Think of all those buses taking a day off every week.
- Promote 4 day work weeks and work-from-home programs for employees.  Many companies already offer this to people who can do the same tasks from a home office
- Discourage the drive-through culture and find ways to encourage people to park and walk in, even to the point of a drive-through fee.
- Promote more rail transportation for goods in lieu of semi trucks. 
- Allow incremental upgrades in manufacturing facilities instead of requiring full scale modernization to Best Available Technology in order to renew air quality permits.  Any waste reduction is good.

So there's the strategy. Now we just need the policy to make it happen.   I like the term Conserve-ative. It's a good way to distance the rational wing of the party from the kooks.

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