Simple conservation practices would make huge difference

September 09, 2005|By Joseph J. Romm

WASHINGTON - The scenario: A simulated terrorist attack in Alaska, coupled with a tight global oil market, had sparked huge oil- and gasoline-price increases, revealing how vulnerable we are to disruptions in oil supply and production - just as Hurricane Katrina has.

We also faced the possibility of further threats to global oil supplies, as we do now: The nation's economy could be hit by another hurricane, a terrorist attack or political problems in oil-producing regions from Venezuela to the Persian Gulf. The failure to prepare for a plausible worst-case scenario is what has created the post-Katrina nightmare in New Orleans.

As the scenario showed, even a mere 4 percent global shortfall in daily supply would double prices from current levels.

The scenario was part of an Oil Shock Wave exercise in June run by the National Commission on Energy Policy and the nonprofit group, Securing America's Future Energy, to draw attention to what we viewed as a significant vulnerability of U.S. security. I pretended to be the undersecretary of energy, and addressed a mock Cabinet.

My task was advising the Cabinet on what we could do in the short term to address gasoline demand. The supply side was being handled, as it is in our real crisis today, by releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. My remarks to the Cabinet then basically are what I would say today:

It's incumbent on us to take strong action quickly to reduce fuel demand and, therefore, prices. Increased prices will have an impact on demand, and the best thing the president could do is to call for specific voluntary conservation measures. He should call on Americans to reduce or combine discretionary trips, to increase ride sharing and to obey the speed limit.

Some simple practices will make a huge difference:

Driving the speed limit - 65 mph instead of 75 mph - would reduce highway gasoline consumption 15 percent. (This basic fact surprises most people, a key reason why they don't take such action on their own.)

Ensuring proper tire inflation, tuning and the use of fuel-efficient motor oil would cut gas consumption between 5 percent and 15 percent. One-fourth of the cars on the road and up to one-third of the SUVs have seriously underinflated tires.

Major companies should emulate the federal government and encourage telecommuting and flexible time.

The president should convene the nation's governors to implement their states' energy conservation plans.

The call for conservation can be especially effective when coupled with a strong public education campaign. Total savings could be a whopping million barrels a day, which should have a large impact on oil and gasoline prices. The United States consumes 20 million barrels of oil a day.

The Katrina crisis has been a wake-up call. It's important to realize the situation could get worse if we have another shock to the system, so action must be taken now. We should start with voluntary measures coordinated with the governors. Then we need to create the legislative authority for stronger actions, such as lower national speed limits, in case they are needed.

We've been experiencing shortages, lines at gas stations and prices approaching $4 a gallon or more in some places. If we fail to take some of these actions, we are needlessly subjecting ourselves to high gasoline prices for months to come. Worse, we are leaving ourselves vulnerable in the event of another catastrophic hurricane or a terrorist attack.

Any crisis severe enough to justify releasing oil reserves to help on the supply side is severe enough to justify a call to conserve on the demand side.

Of course, these are only short-term measures. In the long run, we need a permanent strategy to wean ourselves from oil.

Such a longer-term strategy would start with a significant increase in vehicular fuel economy combined with a serious effort to develop alternative fuels, measures that should have been in the recent energy bill but weren't. Those are the only ways to keep our economic fate in our own hands rather than leaving it up to nature or - worse - our enemies.

Joseph J. Romm, acting assistant secretary of energy in 1997, is the author of The Hype about Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate and a board member of Securing America's Future Energy.

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