Compassionate Conservation: A Real Answer to High Oil Prices

When it comes to the three “Rs” of environmentalism, it often seems that the first R—reduce—receives short shrift. And when it comes to energy policy, reducing impact means conserving energy—something that’s simple in theory but which has often been at the center of heated debate.

high oil prices. © Photos to Go

In September, George W. Bush surprised many observers by calling on Americans to curtail nonessential travel as a solution to the fossil-fuel crunch. “We can encourage employees to car pool or use mass transit, and we can shift peak electricity use to off-peak hours. There’s ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation,” Bush added.

Bush’s announcement tipped off a firestorm of criticism from environmentalists, Democrats and others. Speaking on KCRW in southern California, Los Angeles Times columnist Dan Neil opined, “Let’s not dwell on the schizophrenia of an administration that counsels conservation now when before it backed huge tax breaks for god-almighty large SUVs
an administration whose vice president sneered—sneered—at conservation as feckless personal virtue; an administration that has consistently resisted reasonable increases in Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) requirements.”

Rob Sargent, a Boston-based senior energy policy analyst with the state PIRGs, was more measured. “It might be too little, too late, but Bush’s words were a sign of how urgent this oil situation is. It provides an opening to begin talking about this issue.” Sargent says the most important step we can take toward improving energy security and reducing the potential impact from global warming is to stimulate conservation.

“Anybody who does the math has to conclude that we get more bang for our buck with conservation,” says Sargent. “Most of these other options being talked about, such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or off the coasts, or turning to oil sands or other alternative fossil fuels, just kick the can down the road a little farther. These actions just put off the inevitable. The real issue is we are critically over dependent on oil, and the best thing we can do is to figure out how to use less of it.”

There are obvious parallels between Bush’s plea and President Carter’s famous 1977 “sweater speech,” in which he asked Americans to turn down their thermostats in response to the Arab oil embargo. But Carter’s speech was part of a coordinated federal effort; Bush’s talk was disconnected to significant policy.

According to Sargent, roadblocks to a comprehensive conservation plan include the fossil fuel and auto industries” influence, as well as a lack of leadership and education. “I think people are now willing to be led on this issue, but they need options: people need alternatives to driving, and we need policies in place to help transition our economy to be less reliant on oil,” he says.

Debate over how to best convince Americans to don those sweaters and reduce vehicle mileage ranges from promoting strictly voluntary incentives—such as tax breaks to companies who encourage car pooling and subsidize transit ridership, and free parking for hybrid and electric cars—to regulation. Al Gore famously promoted the politically unpopular idea of raising gas taxes, while Hillary Clinton earned the scorn of fiscal conservatives by introducing a bill that would levy $20 billion in annual taxes on oil companies to help subsidize energy costs of low-income households. The policy group Get America Working advocates taxing carbon emissions or fuel use, and decreasing payroll taxes accordingly. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), conservation is the nation’s best chance to address current energy woes, especially given that most supply options will take several years to bring online. Recent ACEEE research shows that a practical portfolio of efficiency upgrades could reduce natural gas wholesale prices by as much as 26 percent over the next five years, generating more than $100 billion in economic benefits. In a 2003 study, the National Petroleum Council called for efficiency improvements to stabilize natural gas markets.

Today, we’re spending $20 billion per year on oil from the unstable Persian Gulf region alone, and importing more than half the petroleum we use. If the national auto fleet averaged 40 miles per gallon (easily achievable with today’s hybrid vehicles), U.S. consumers could see annual gasoline savings of $50 billion by 2015, reports If we reached 55 mpg by 2025, savings would reach $138 billion and we’d cut oil imports by half.

In a recent study, the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership concluded that economically achievable upgrades in the region’s efficiency would result in 34,375 gigawatt-hours in energy savings by 2013, which is enough to power all Connecticut and New Hampshire households for a year. Other benefits include consumer savings, keeping money in local economies and decreasing the need for controversial (and potentially dangerous) liquefied natural gas terminals. A University of Michigan study reported that the average American household could reduce its energy bills by 65 percent simply by maximizing energy efficiency.

Given that most analysts predict that we are nearing the end of cheap oil, there’s no better time for some common-sense conservation.