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“Energy is in everything,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) this morning at the Center for American Progress, explaining his proposal for increasing American energy independence. The scope of the problem, he said, is apparent “as soon as you start to get into this debate.”
Merkley detailed a plan where deployment of electric vehicles and increased fuel efficiency for heavy trucks would eliminate the country’s need to import oil from overseas (all imports except those from Canada and Mexico) by 2030. Nearly 70 percent of American oil imports come from overseas, weakening national security. His plan would also reduce environmental damage from the country’s oil consumption, helping to protect the climate and avoid disasters such as the one currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico.
Merkley’s remarks were followed by a panel discussion of climate experts, including James Barrett, chief economist at the Clean Energy Development Center; Sherri Goodman, senior vice president at the Center for Naval Analysis; and Jerome Ringo, senior executive for global strategies at Green Port, an international company that seeks to establish sustainable ports around the world.
“Today is not a good day. Today is not a good day for me, not for my fellow citizens of Louisiana. Today is not a good day in America,” said Ringo, a Louisiana native and resident who has worked in the petrochemical industry and on offshore drilling platforms there.
Referring to the catastrophic oil spill that has resulted from the blowout of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, he said, “We’ve been screaming for policy changes for years, and now we’re faced with a worst-case scenario.” He added that Gulf Coast residents fear that a hurricane later in the summer could blow contamination inland.
Merkley does not include any expansion of offshore drilling as part of his plan to reduce the need for oil imports. He noted the extensive damage from the spill so far and the danger of a tropical storm, but also pointed out that even an aggressive plan to tap domestic oil reserves would be insufficient to reduce the need for foreign imports. Offshore drilling could not reduce gasoline prices by more than 3 cents per gallon, he said.
“When energy prices go up, oil companies in Alaska sell oil to Americans at prices dictated by the global oil market,” explained Barrett of the Clean Energy Development Center. Achieving true energy independence through exploiting domestic reserves would essentially require a ban on both oil imports and exports, he added.
Merkley’s plan instead relies mainly on deploying electric cars in the consumer market, powering trucks with natural gas, and increasing fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles—measures that would reduce American oil consumption by 3.2 million barrels per day by 2030. And Merkley has introduced a bill along with Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) called the Electric Vehicle Deployment Act, which would use a commodity-based approach to encourage both production and consumption of electric cars.
Improving fuel economy for medium and heavy trucks could reduce oil consumption by an additional 2 million barrels per day by 2030, according to Merkley. Much of those gains in efficiency could be achieved with simple steps such as equipping trucks with airfoils and automatic tire pressure adjustors.
Merkley’s proposal would in total reduce oil consumption by 8.3 million barrels per day in all by 2030, which is much more than the approximately 6 million barrels a day that the United States is expected to import from overseas that year.
All three panelists expressed optimism about Merkley’s proposal.
Barrett said the country’s infrastructure and economy had been built on the assumption that oil would always cost $20 a barrel. “Can we remain a major economic player in a global market under $70-a-barrel oil unless we change? The answer is certainly no,” said Barrett, adding that Merkley’s proposal was an important step in the right direction.
Goodman, of the Center for Naval Analysis, praised the proposal for not only encouraging the development of new technologies, but also facilitating their adoption by consumers. She said that speeding regulatory approval and adoption had been an important part of her experience with clean energy technologies as deputy undersecretary of environmental security at the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.
“The military historically has been at the forefront of adopting new energy technologies,” from steam-powered ships to nuclear energy, she said. Military leaders understand that they have strong reasons to push for a more energy efficient military. Reducing the need to transport fuel would reduce the cost and risk of deploying troops, for example.
Ringo said that now is an opportune moment to discuss the proposal with outrage heightened in the wake of the BP disaster. “We have lived through decades of ‘missed opportunity,’” he said. “Now we’re in a decade of ‘last opportunity.’”
Asked whether he thought Congress was ready for more hard work after the recent fierce debates over healthcare legislation, Merkley said it was too early to tell. “We should not say, ‘we’re not quite ready, we’re a few votes short, we should wait.’ The challenges we face are not waiting,” he said.
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