A remarkable group of transportation experts, environmentalists, utility executives, national security experts, political leaders, public officials and interested citizens gathered at Microsoft’s campus this month to attend a two-day conference on why and how to move beyond oil in transportation.
There was a strong bipartisan consensus that we must act decisively to reduce oil dependence for the sake of the economy, national security and the environment. Getting there is the hard part, but the new technologies and public policy ideas discussed at the conference, including a national demonstration project based in the Northwest, were encouraging.
Over the last hundred years, oil has come to dominate transportation, with 97 percent of all U.S. transportation now fueled by oil. For the first 50 years, the U.S. was a self-sufficient exporter; our oil resources helped us prevail in two world wars and achieve an enviable standard of living. But by the 1970s we were importing a third of our oil and becoming increasingly vulnerable to supply disruptions. The Arab oil embargoes that decade led to the first fuel economy standards and to the 1980 Carter Doctrine on the use of military force if necessary to keep Middle East oil supply lines open. On July 9, 1979, Time magazine’s cover showed a solid gold oil barrel with the caption: “The World Over a Barrel: OPEC’s Tightening Oil Squeeze.” Although every president since then has vowed to reduce oil dependence, we now import two-thirds of our oil, double the 1970s percentage, with the result that we will spend well over $600 billion to buy imported oil this year.
OPEC is now stronger than ever. That 1979 Time cover could run again next week. In the last few days, in order to maintain oil prices above $100 a barrel, OPEC cut production targets, and Russia announced for the first time it would “closely coordinate” with OPEC. The supply of oil from non-OPEC countries is in decline, and the accelerating transfer of U.S. and world wealth to what columnist Thomas Friedman calls “petrodictators” is unprecedented. In his just-published book, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” Friedman quotes extensively from one of the conference speakers, former CIA Director Jim Woolsey, and asks the following rhetorical question: “What kind of America would you like to see – an America addicted to oil and thereby fueling the worst autocracies in the world, or a green America that is building scalable alternatives to crude oil and thereby freeing ourselves from the grip of countries who have drawn a bull’s-eye on our back and whose values we oppose?”
Without decisive action, the oil supply-demand squeeze will get worse. World oil demand is exploding, led by China and India. In China there are nine cars for every 1,000 Chinese of driving age compared with 1,132 cars for every 1,000 Americans of driving age – and the Chinese are working overtime to catch up. Every day 14,000 new cars hit the road in China, and Tata Motors of India is about to mass-produce a four-passenger gas car for $2,500. The combined population of those two nations is over 2.5 billion. Imagine the effect on oil prices if their demand for oil per person equaled even half of ours. At the same time, the International Energy Agency predicts limited supply increases as new discoveries struggle to keep up with declines in existing fields.
At the conference, K.C. Golden of Climate Solutions, an Olympia nonprofit, and others described the environmental consequences of oil dependence in transportation, which in the Puget Sound region contributes half the greenhouse gas emissions. Without a rapid and fundamental change from oil to electricity and advanced biofuels in vehicles, there is little chance to meet state emission reduction targets. It has become clear that plug-in electric cars can have a huge impact in cutting energy demand and carbon emission while promoting renewable energy.
Rob Bernard, Microsoft’s chief environmental strategist, outlined a three-part approach – Zero, Shared, Efficient – for helping to move beyond oil in transportation. He described some of the advanced software and technology tools that are increasingly sophisticated and affordable. From telecommuting and conferencing options, to smart and predictive commuter routing with hands-free, real-time communications, transportation is being transformed. Microsoft’s own new Connector buses, car pools, van pools and frequent Metro transit service can also be integrated into smart hubs that will optimize transportation options.
Other speakers, including David Kaplan of Seattle technology firm V2Green, described technology that will link plug-in hybrid cars to a smarter, more efficient power grids and to intelligent road systems. David Horner of the U.S. Department of Transportation and others spoke of advanced road pricing systems that would manage and reduce urban congestion.
The components to enable us to move beyond oil and transform transportation are ready to assemble into a system built on what Friedman calls a common communications platform – an “Energy Internet.” As he says, “Government’s job will be to organize pilots that will allow different parties to participate.” With the political leadership and public support as well as the technical know-how and a clean power grid, the Northwest should be the place to start.
STEVE MARSHALL is a nationally recognized expert on energy and transportation issues. BRUCE AGNEW is policy director of the Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute. Cascadia, Microsoft and the Idaho National Laboratory co-sponsored the Beyond Oil: Transforming Transportation conference Sept. 4-5 at the Microsoft Redmond campus. For more detail see www.cascadiaproject.org.