Commentary: Keep Drilling, Stop Driving, Use Oil Wisely

Deep_Horizon_Fire.jpgBP's Deepwater Horizon. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard.

(Editor's note: This is an Op-Ed from Jason Henderson, Geography Professor at San Francisco State University, who is writing a book on the politics of mobility in cities. He grew up in New Orleans where he spent much time in the coastal wetlands of Louisiana while also observing the activity of the oil and gas industry. He has never owned a car.)

For almost a century my native Louisiana has been expendable when it comes to America's voracious appetite for oil. Now after over a week of national media attention, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is suddenly big enough to bring President Obama down for a disaster tour this past Sunday.

No one can say when the gushing river of oil will stop. But as we watch and ponder this sorry state of affairs, environmentalists will demand loudly that Obama retract his earlier proposal to loosen offshore drilling policy. Perhaps they are right, but like other Americans, most of those same people will likely keep on driving. So I take this moment to urge environmentalists to reflect upon their relationship between oil and driving. We need oil and are lucky as a civilization to be endowed with oil, but most people are squandering this precious resource by driving. We need to use oil more wisely.

I see incredible value in oil. It is one of the most utilitarian natural resources known to humans. Oil stores tremendous amounts of energy, it is very easy to transport long distances by pipeline, rail, ship, and by truck, and it can sit for a long time without degrading. It can be refined and distilled easily and its petroleum by-products are used in plastics and pharmaceuticals, and are part of the food system.

Wind turbines and solar panels are made from polymers that come from oil. The new alternative energy future promoted by environmentalists will be made from oil. Growing plants to drive cars also requires oil. Oil will be needed to build new high speed rail lines, bicycle networks, light rail systems, electric buses, and new ways of organizing work and shopping through compact urban development. In sum, we'll need to keep drilling for oil so that we can shift to a more sustainable energy path that significantly reduces our overall dependence on oil.

As many environmentalists point out, we do not need to keep drilling everywhere. We do not need to keep searching further offshore, or push into remote, wild areas, or burn toxic tar sands. We need to conserve. We need to reduce per-capita consumption. But most importantly, we need to stop driving everywhere for everything so that oil can be used more intelligently and judiciously.

Roughly 67 percent of the oil America consumes is for transport, and much of this is for using cars to travel relatively short distances on a routine, daily basis. This adds up to over 27 miles driven per day, per person, in the top 10 most sprawling US Metros and over 21 miles per day in most other metropolitan areas. The average household drives over 21,000 miles per year.  Ninety two percent of American households own one car, and 62 percent own two cars. Currently there are 250 million automobiles in the US, amounting to 33 percent of the global fleet of cars, and 325 million vehicles are forecast for 2050 (at a slow, 1% growth rate).

There is no source of energy that will replicate this level of hyper-automobility. Electric or hydrogen cars will need the oil-equivalent of hundreds of coal or nuclear power plants which will also take lots of oil to build.  Where are we going to build all of those power plants? What other places are expendable? How much greenhouse gases would come from building all of those power plants and is it worth it simply to keep up routine driving?  Retrofitting entire cities with new plug-in outlets will require enormous resources at a time when we can’t even "afford" to provide basic upkeep to bridges and highways much less sustain a working public transit system.

The emphasis by many environmentalists on "green cars" has been an awful distraction. Replacing 250 million vehicles with hybrid or electric cars will not cut it. These are oil consuming machines made from polymers derived from oil and designed to travel under 30 miles a day in an urban configuration. That oil needs to be conserved and used to make the "big switch" that we need to survive as a civilization. Any able-bodied environmentalist that regularly exclaims "but I need to drive!" should really reflect on what they’re saying.

Consider the modest lifestyle changes that can be made towards routine daily walking, bicycling, and transit. Even in many low-density suburbs in America, 40 percent of car trips are less than five miles, within a comfortable spatial range of bicycling. Grocery shopping does not require a car. One can simply walk, bike, or take transit, and either come up with creative ways to carry it, or have a jitney service take care of the delivery.

Consider the co-benefits of physical activity, health, reduced greenhouse gases, less noise and less sprawl. In anticipation of rural environmentalists' need to continue using cars, consider that 80 percent of Americans live in metropolitan areas, and that many small towns are highly bikeable and walkable. Most people can do the switch if they think it through. Car sharing can provide the mobility needed in the rare instance when a car is truly required.

Those environmentalists who are still unwilling to give up driving should at least give up obstructing change. In supposedly progressive cities like San Francisco, many self-identified environmentalists balk at removing parking to create bicycle lanes. Still other self-proclaimed environmentalists oppose removing car lanes in order to create bus lanes that improve transit service. In suburban areas many environmentalists spearhead opposition to compact, modestly dense housing because they view it as a threat to their convenient driving.

Environmentalists and political progressives who insist on driving need to accept that we need to make it more difficult to drive everywhere, for everything, all of the time. We charge the poor to ride transit, and keep allowing fares to rise while gutting service, but many environmentalists have come to expect cheap and easy driving. The sense of entitlement to drive across the city at high speed and easily park needs to be rethought. And motorists need to slow down on our streets so those of us willing to make the change can do so safely.

Instead of the same-old approach of "stop drilling," environmentalists need to lead by example, and stop driving so that we can keep drilling in a thoughtful and reasonable way that minimizes expansion but enables the shifts needed. Otherwise environmental outcries about the spill in the Gulf are difficult to take seriously. There is a car-free and car-lite movement in America seeking to create spaces to live and work without automobile dependency. Please join in helping to create those spaces.

And remember, we still need oil to get us there, so we need to use it wisely.