Posted by: JohnnyRook | January 5, 2009

Read It and Weep: All the Stuff We Knew and Ignored

“It if weren’t so expensive, I’d wish I were dead.”–John Prine

If I could, I would post this entire 1972(!) Atlantic article by Stewart Udall. Entitled The Last Traffic Jam, it is a prescient and sobering piece. But, since I can’t publish the whole thing, here are some excerpts along with my commentary.

After you read my post go to the original article and read all the things I had to leave out.

At the moment there are more than 112 million motor vehicles on the American road….Detroit executives look forward to 178 million registered vehicles in the United States by 1985

The environmental effects of the automobile are well known: motor vehicles cause, for example, as much as 75 percent of the noise and 80 percent of the air pollution in our cities, and the industry must face mounting pressure from environmentalists. There is another, even more compelling constraint on the proliferation of cars. Surprising as it may seem, American oil companies, which during the 1960s increased their production of gasoline by 64 percent, will not be able to provide enough petroleum to fill the gas tanks of some sixty-five million additional autos expected by 1985.

According to Wikipedia, in 1985 there were 172 million motor vehicles on US roads.

In 2006 there were 250,851,833 motor vehicles in the United States.

Additionally, there were 168.03 million motor vehicles on China’s roads in October, 2008.

If there will in fact be 178 million motor vehicles on American highways by 1985, the NPC estimates that our oil needs will increase by about 85 percent. During the next decade total U.S. oil production, however, will continue to hover near the current level of eleven million barrels per day—even if the Alaska pipeline is put into operation. (It would contribute an extra two million barrels per day, thus helping make up for a falloff elsewhere.) Unless action is taken to slacken domestic demands, this huge petroleum gap will force the United States by 1985 to import roughly 60 percent of its oil, largely from the nations of the Middle East.

As it turned out, petroleum imports in 1985 were lower than expected but have risen consistently since then. As of September 2008 the United States produced 5,064,000 barrels/day of petroleum while importing 12,036,000 barrels/day. Imports provided 58.2% of total consumption not too far from Udall’s (actually the National Petroleum Council’s) prediction of 60%. Of those imports, 5,980,000 barrels/day came from OPEC countries. The biggest exporter to the US is Canada. Nine percent of US crude imports come from Canada’s tar sands.

Udall foresaw the growth of foreign demand as well.

This surge of demand will soon begin to send shock waves through the American economy and transportation system. The impact of these tremors can already be anticipated: to the consumer they signal the end of a long love affair with the car, and to Detroit they offer an early warning that its 1985 growth aims are dangerously unrealistic. Unless we exercise foresight and devise growth-limits policies for the auto industry, events will thrust us into a crisis that will lead to a substantial erosion of our domestic oil supply as well as the independence it provides us with, and a level of petroleum imports that could cost as much as $20 to $30 billion per year. (This in turn would produce a staggering balance-of-payments problem for the United States, and give the Middle Eastern suppliers a dangerous leverage over our transportation system as well.) Moreover, we would still be depleting our remaining oil reserves at an unacceptable rate, and scrambling for petroleum substitutes, with enormous potential damage to the environment.

The cost of US imported oil in 2007, according to Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, was 327 billion, 10 times the NPC’s prediction. And foreign suppliers seem to have gained leverage over more than just our transportation system.

Plainly, any effort to limit economic growth violates our historic belief in progress. The President and his advisers have largely ignored this great and difficult issue, although, in his 1971 message to Congress, the President rightly called for the formation of a single agency to oversee the nation’s energy policies. The stress of his message, however, fell not on limiting demand for energy but on developing new technology to meet growing energy “needs.” Despite his expressed concern over energy shortage and air pollution, the President has chosen to shore up the economy by stimulating the production of automobiles.

Well, now, that’s worked out real well for us, hasn’t it?

For its part, the private sector has been dominated by oil and auto industries whose executives have been unable even to contemplate production plateaus and low horsepower engines. When James Roche retired last December as chief executive of General Motors, he expressed the belief and the faith of Detroit by predicting the inevitability of the auto industry’s growth. He then observed: “I think the average American today would give up about anything before he gives up his automobile.”

Even the planet, apparently. Remember that seen from An Inconvenient truth where Gore shows the right-wing graphic, which supposedly showed that we couldn’t save the planet because it was too expensive?

The energy crisis poses specific questions which leaders of the oil industry can no longer avoid. At what point will rising U.S. oil consumption endanger our whole economy? When does a national policy that accelerates oil depletion become a threat to the long-term future of the American people? When must we adopt and enforce a remedial policy of conservation?

The unwillingness of the oilmen to discuss such issues is illustrated paradoxically by last year’s report of the National Petroleum Council. In one breath, this document describes a grave oil shortage; in the next, it says the shortage can be overcome. This report simply urges “new oil policies” which would enhance the short-run economic position of the major oil companies and hasten the depletion of the nation’s petroleum resources. Give us the tools (in the form of new tax incentives and exploration advantages), the oilmen argue, and we’ll produce twice as much oil.

How are we to meet the nation’s galloping demands for more oil? The current “game plan” of the oil industry, as reflected in the National Petroleum Council reports, proposes these stratagems to make possible “dramatic increases in domestic production”:

An increase of the oil depletion allowance.

Liberal new tax incentives for oil drilling and exploration.

Federal deregulation of controls over the price consumers pay for natural gas (to encourage new exploration).

Quick access—through expansive new Interior Department leasing programs—to the oil deposits below the Atlantic coastal shelf.

Aggressive development of Alaska’s oil resources.

“Drill, Baby, Drill” Well, they got all they asked and what did we get? Declining domestic production, environment destruction (this was written 17 years before the Exxon Valdez crime), dependence on petrodictatorships for our energy, tremendously bloody and costly foreign wars (wars whose costs needed to be added to the baseline costs of oil imports to begin to get a true reckoning of the costs to Americans of imported oil), windfall profits for oil companies and the catastrophic consequences of global warming, which Udall did not know yet know about. It was “only” 20 years ago after James Hansen testified to Congress and Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature that we lost our excuse for not knowing about that.

Extracting enormous quantities of oil from Colorado oil shale may someday be possible, but I have not spoken with a single expert who believes that this process can be developed in time to fill the petroleum gap of the next fifteen years. Oil shale development is already the subject of intense controversy. There is no known technique for extracting the oil economically, and neither the federal government nor the oil industry is pursuing the kind of crash research that might produce a big breakthrough in oil shale technology. Moreover, it is abundantly clear that environmentalists will strenuously oppose any oil shale development plans that would turn huge sections of the Rocky Mountains into a conservation disaster area.

And now, 36 years later, it is still not possible to develop oil shale so as to derive any significant near-term benefit and without destroying not only the Rocky Mountains but the entire planet.

In short, common sense dictates that we begin a transition to policies designed to avoid an energy impasse that could cripple out transportation system and imperil our economy. We must set growth limits that will allow the automobile and oil industries to maintain economic stability while conserving our resources and preserving our environment. Of course, such a reorientation will require statesmanship as well as public pressure. It will not happen unless corporate self-interest yields to a responsible outlook that serves the broader interests of the nation as a whole. Above all, this shift requires a thorough redirection of the aims of these two industries.

The oil industry, in my view, must acknowledge that conservatism (not depletion) should be the keystone of our national energy policies.

The auto industry must acknowledge that a rational transportation policy should seek a balance between individual convenience, the efficient use of limited resources, and urban-living values that protect spaciousness, natural beauty, and human-scale mobility.

Thirty-six years later we find ourselves calling for the same things and hearing the same old stale arguments in return.

Some will argue that the changes advocated above are a prescription for unemployment and recession. I believe this argument is alarmist and specious. I am not proposing that we bring our oil and auto industries to a screeching halt. There is still time to begin a series of gradual steps toward new transportation and energy policies, livable cities, and more humane, efficient transit systems. These changes will require some industries to make steady adjustments, and others to set firm new limits on production and construction.

Less horsepower, smaller cars, and fewer autos mean more safety, healthier urban environments, more constraints on suburban sprawl, more efficient use of fuel. Less oil consumption for fuel means more oil to share with our children and theirs, more energy self-sufficiency, more oil for use in basic industrial processes. Less investment in highways means more money for efficient public transportation, more open space, more investment in cheap, fast intercity trains.

The bonuses of “less is more” are vast. The choice facing the American people is not between growth and stagnation, but between short-term growth and long-term disaster. We can continue to pursue the growth policies of the past and let urban decay, exorbitant prices, and risks to our national security dictate stringent remedial policies a few years from now. Or we can exercise restraint and learn to live comfortably, within our means.

The basic choices we face are still the same. The salient difference between now and 36 years ago is that we no longer have the option of making a gradual shift to a sustainable economy. Such a shift is now an urgent necessity, not only for the United States, but for the entire world. We do not have another 36 years to steal resources from the world’s poor and future generations. If we do not act within the next couple of years we will create a world in ways that most people alive today cannot (and are not) even imagining.

h/t to Bill McGurk

Crossposted at Daily Kos


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