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Barack Obama and the Mass Transit Revolution

January 31, 2009

In our society, certain goals are acknowledged to be necessary for achieving ecological as well as economic sustainability, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing petroleum consumption. Reducing petroleum consumption would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and since 99% of the fuel that powers American vehicles is oil according to the Department of Energy, transforming the transportation system of the society is fundamental for achieving these goals, as well as other quality of life goals such as reducing traffic and reducing smog.

Los Angelenos are intimately familiar with the undesirable results of compelling the vast majority of the population to drive in order to achieve an adequate level of mobility. They have also taken action: 67.9% of Los Angeles county residents recently voted for a measure(R) that will increase their local sales tax by 0.5% and contribute 65% of the revenue to mass transit. On a statewide level, Californians approved $9.95 billion of bonds to begin the construction of a bullet train that will connect Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 1/2 hours(Prop 1A). In contrast to this, Californians rejected $3.425 billion of bonds to subsidize the purchase of high fuel economy or alternative fuel vehicles(Prop10).

While politicians have railed against foreign oil dependence over the last few years, overall U.S. oil consumption barely diminished until very recently. According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2007 American oil consumption dropped by 0.0003% from the previous year. According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, whose statistics regarding the U.S. are virtually identical to the EIA's, yet also contains statistics for most countries and all of the continents, and thus composes a global portrait, the total share of the world's oil which Americans consumed in 2007 was 23.9%. The disproportionate consumption of this vital resource by the U.S. is a fact which is becoming increasingly well known, referenced by everyone from Barack Obama to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Although American oil consumption has been steadily rising since 1984 with a slip here and there, in November the Energy Information Administration projected that U.S. oil demand would drop by 5.4% in 2008 due to the U.S. economic downturn, the largest drop since 1980.

Barack Obama has declared that energy is the most important issue that our future economy will face. While his energy plan proposes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 through a cap and trade system, it sets no explicit goal for how much the U.S. will reduce its consumption of one of the two biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and what the Department of Energy refers to as "the lifeblood of America's economy," i.e, oil, in the short or long term.

A numerical figure for how much the U.S. will reduce its consumption of oil under his plan must be deduced from his pledge which he has declared on numerous occasions to eliminate Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil imports within 10 years. The goal in itself is an appeal to the ignorance and prejudice of Americans, and an analysis of his energy plan reveals means towards achieving it, and the greater goal of greenhouse gas emission reductions, which are contradictory, while it largely ignores the most fundamental solution which could have the most profound impact on many parts of the country, including California.

To begin with, the declaration promotes the misconception that the U.S. is dependent on the Middle East for oil, which is not the case. The United States imports more oil from the single country of Canada than it does from the Middle East. It imports more oil from South America than it does from the Middle East, and more oil from Africa than it does from the Middle East. Middle Eastern oil imports, at 2,208 thousand barrels daily, account for 16.4% of total U.S. oil imports according to the EIA. Regarding the "rogue" state of Venezuela, as Barack Obama likes to refer to it, at 1,361 thousand barrels daily, Venezuelan imports represent 10.1% of our oil imports according to the EIA. Such figures would add up to a reduction of roughly 26.5% of our total imports.

However, it is important to place these figures in context. The United States is the third largest oil producer in the world, producing 8.0% of the world's total, second only to Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation which each produce 12.6%. The U.S. produces more oil than Canada and Mexico combined. It produces more oil than the entire Central and South American region, and it produces more than 2.5 times more oil than the country of Venezuela. This means that eliminating 26.5% of our oil imports over 10 years, only translates into reducing our overall oil consumption by 17.3% over 10 years.

To give greater perspective to this figure let us compare it to what other industrialized countries which already had lower per capita oil consumption rates accomplished during the same period of time in which the U.S. reduced its total oil consumption by 0.0003%. The United Kingdom reduced its oil consumption by 5%, driving its per capita oil consumption rate down to 40.9% that of the U.S. Switzerland reduced its oil consumption by 9.9%, driving its per capita oil consumption rate down to 47.9% that of the U.S. Germany reduced its oil consumption by 9.0%, driving its per capita oil consumption rate down to 44% that of the U.S. What these figures demonstrate, as well as the recent downturn in U.S. oil consumption, is that to propose in a costumed manner that the U.S. reduce its oil consumption by 17.3% over 10 years is hardly an ambitious goal. It is emphatically incommensurate with the larger goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

While some of his plan's proposals can work towards achieving his goal such as increasing fuel economy standards by 4 percent per year, other proposals will be largely inane within the timeframe of 10 years; such as getting 1 million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015, which means that there will still be in excess of 250 million conventional cars on the road, and creating a $7,000 tax credit for purchasing an advanced vehicle. Regarding increasing fuel economy standards by 4 percent per year, this proposal is largely redundant because corporate average fuel economy(CAFE) standards have been legislated to increase to 35 mile per gallon by 2020 for cars and light trucks.

The primary goals embedded in Barack Obama's energy plan are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce petroleum consumption, and provide economic relief to Americans. Eliminating Middle East and Venezuelan oil imports obliquely serves the goal of reducing petroleum consumption, but does not serve the other two goals as one might imagine. The top five oil exporters to the U.S. are Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria. Eliminating Middle East and Venezuelan oil imports would leave as the U.S.'s primary sources of oil imports Canada, Mexico, and Nigeria. Nigeria is a country that has lived with constant political instability which would make the U.S. economy more vulnerable to a price surge; Mexico is a country with diminishing proved oil reserves, which now stand at 9.6 years of production; and Canada whose proved oil reserves stand at 22.9 years of production, presents a dilemma: oil extracted from Canada's tar sands creates 3 times the greenhouse gases which conventional oil extraction creates. The U.S.'s own proved reserves to production ratio stands at 11.7 years. Potential new sources of oil such as that extracted from shale may create as much as 4 times the greenhouse gases as conventional oil extraction creates. According to Barack Obama's energy plan, he wishes to expedite such a process.

Achieving all of the primary goals outlined in Barack Obama's energy plan is improbable because while he makes proposals to relieve economic pressure, these very same proposals stimulate consumption, such as, stimulating and expediting domestic production. Providing a $1,000 emergency energy rebate to American families from a windfall tax profits tax on oil companies will relieve economic pressure, but increase consumption. Swapping oil from the strategic petroleum reserve to drive down prices, would increase consumption.

The plan also calls for phasing in 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels into the fuel supply by 2030. A proposal that will make little difference in reducing oil consumption within a 10 year time frame, but has moderate potential in the mid to long term. Total U.S. gasoline consumption in 2007 was 142 billion gallons according to the Energy Information Administration. Diesel fuel accounted for another 64 billion gallons. We cannot assume that the price of such advanced biofuels will be lower than what the current price of gasoline is now or was several months ago.

Only at the very end of his energy plan, does Barack Obama dedicate one paragraph under the title, "Build More Livable and Sustainable Communities," to the concept that if the vast majority of the population was not compelled to drive everywhere, we would not consume nearly a quarter of the world's oil.

"Over the long term, we know that the amount of fuel we will use is directly related to our land use decisions and development patterns. For the last 100 years, our communities have been organized around the principle of cheap gasoline...They(Barack Obama and Joe Biden) believe that we must devote significantly more attention to investments that will make it easier for us to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives. They are committed to reforming the federal transportation funding and leveling employer incentives for driving and public transit."

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