Skip to Content
Streetsblog San Francisco home
Streetsblog San Francisco home
Log In

The Moral Imperative of the BP Oil Spill: Drive 20 Percent Less

2010_JH_Flyover_June_4_3.jpgPhoto: Jonathan Henderson, Gulf Restoration Network

Editor's note: This is an essay from Jason Henderson, a Geography Professor at San Francisco State
University. He was born and raised in New Orleans and spent many years
exploring Louisiana's wetlands. He is currently writing a book about
the politics of mobility, and frequently advocates for reduced car
parking and improved bicycle space in San Francisco.

The Moratorium

After almost two months of failed attempts at "topkills," "tophats," "junkshots," "cofferdams," and "caps-on-the-diamond-cut-riser" it is evident that the BP wellhead spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico has unleashed an unprecedented catastrophe. We made a mistake in wishing away the risks of deepwater drilling. Despite protests from the oil industry, the six-month moratorium proposed by the Obama administration is clearly needed in order for the nation to have a pointed and deliberate reflection about its priorities.

As a Louisiana native I am sensitive to the disruption this moratorium might cause for the 150,000 people employed in offshore drilling and corollary services. Yet take one look at the destruction of a truly renewable and sustainable industry -- fisheries -- and think it through. The offshore oil industry just killed the commercial and recreational fishing industry, it may destroy tourism, and will kill more if we do not get drilling and environmental protection right. How many jobs will be lost because of this ecological catastrophe? And what future start-up companies or footloose firms want to move to a region that is mired in a toxic cesspool of oil? Who would want to invest in property or raise families in a region that has not carefully protected its environment and regulated polluting industries? In the long run, the moratorium gives us time to work this out, and is better for the Gulf Coast economy. It's also best for the nation.

But in the short run, a solid and comprehensive moratorium could mean roughly 1.7 million barrels a day eliminated from the US energy portfolio without any stopgap measure in place to check that demand. Far-off energy miracles in hydrogen, wind, solar, or nuclear energy will not meet the immediate demand. Instead, as Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu points out, the nation might get the 1.7 million barrels it draws from the Gulf from somewhere else.[1]

Defenders of offshore drilling say that demand for oil in the U.S. will still hover around 20 million barrels a day -- every day -- including during the moratorium, however long it lasts. Since there is nothing online to substitute for the oil drawn from the Gulf of Mexico, the equivalent will instead be shipped in by tanker. Existing and soon-to-be deployed rigs in the Gulf will be moved to Brazil, Mexico, or West Africa. Once they are licensed to operate there, they'll likely be fixed in place for up to two years. Therefore 1.7 million barrels of oil will still come in every day, but at greater risk to other places with less regulation or oversight. Do Americans feel that these places are more expendable than Louisiana and the Gulf Coast? I hope not. And if we put all our eggs in the Middle East basket again, consider that it costs America between $47 and $90 billion annually to defend Middle Eastern oil supplies.[2]

So what can be done in the immediate future to rectify the whole mess? I propose that we can offset the moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico by driving 20 percent less. What follows is an outline of how I came to this conclusion, and what government can do to achieve it quickly.

2010_JH_Flyover_June_4_6.jpgPhoto: Jonathan Henderson, Gulf Restoration Network

Offsetting the Moratorium

According to the US Department of Energy's 2009 Transportation Energy Fact Book, regular passenger cars used 4.8 million barrels a day in 2008.[3] That same year light trucks (SUVs, mini-vans, and personal household pickup trucks) burned another 4 million barrels a day. In total, personal household passenger vehicles burned 8.8 million barrels per day in 2008. The 1.7 million barrels per day produced in the Gulf of Mexico, mainly for gasoline, amounts to roughly 19 percent of US gasoline consumed daily for cars and light trucks. For comparison, trucks for freight used 2.5 million barrels per day in 2008, and 1.2 million barrels per day were used for flying.

So if we err on the side of caution and round up, America needs to reduce daily gasoline consumption by 20 percent every day for the next six months, and, I argue, for the next two-to-five years as this deepwater drilling conundrum is resolved. We do not want to hit trucking because that carries our food and goods. We do not want to hit industry, which uses 4.5 million barrels a day, because we want to remain competitive globally (although we could stand to decrease consumption of disposable plastics made from oil). And we do not want to hit agriculture because petroleum, like it or not, grows food. There are various other important things, like pharmaceuticals, eye glasses, and laptops that are part of the 20 million barrels consumed daily in the U.S. We pretty much will want to keep using those things, albeit in cleaner ways. So we are left with reducing everyday driving, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is what the nation needs to do anyway. We owe it to ourselves, to the Gulf of Mexico, and to the rest of the world. And we need to do it now -- not wait for miracle green cars decades from now. So how do we do it?

We should learn from World War Two

During World War Two the United States supplied 6 billion barrels of oil for the Allies' war effort. [4] It was used to propel bombers and transport the wounded, to build battleships and provide fuel for growing food for the Allied armies. U.S. oil amounted to roughly 85 percent of all the oil burned by the Allies, and it was oil that largely determined who won the war. As rapid expansion of wartime industry occurred, the government recognized the need to conserve oil. It established the Office of Defense Transportation (ODT) within days of the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941. ODT was mandated to "assure maximum utilization of domestic transport to ensure successful prosecution of the war" and lasted until August 1945, just after the Japanese surrender.

Through gasoline rationing, coordination of public transit, and aggressive marketing of the moral imperative to conserve, the U.S. reduced gasoline consumption by 32 percent between 1941 and 1945.[5] In 1941, 23.6 billion gallons of gasoline were used for civilian cars and trucks, but by 1944 it was reduced to 16 billion gallons. More significantly, by 1944 personal driving was reduced to 63 percent of what it was in 1941. Annual vehicle miles traveled per private personal vehicle dropped from roughly 9,500 miles to 5,250 miles per car. The "We Can Do It!" spirit of war on the home front translated into a concerted effort to reduce driving.

Lest you conclude that rationing is some sort of communistic plot, recall that after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita shut down Gulf of Mexico drilling and crippled 50 percent of U.S. refining capacity, President George Bush urged Americans to be "better conservers" and asked us to avoid non-essential driving. He also asked federal workers to carpool or take public transit.[6] While this was purely voluntary and amounted to nothing, the point is, an oil man said it. He did not have to, but Bush's people understood the relationship between oil and driving and saw the panicked long lines at gas stations in Houston suburbs. Now, 52 days after the Deepwater Horizon blew up and sank, there has not been a peep about the relationship between oil and driving from the current administration. But I am certain that they understand that relationship, and so I will offer the following suggestions for how we as a nation can reduce driving by 20 percent in order to offset the 1.7 million barrels of oil pumped daily from the Gulf of Mexico.

How to reduce driving by 20 percent (or more):

Federal funding for transit operations

During World War Two, public transit reached its peak ridership in the U.S., and this was largely through coordination by the federal government as part of the national gasoline rationing strategy. Public transit policy was energy policy. While I am not advocating a federal takeover of transit, the federal government can provide something more targeted to transit today -- operating revenue.

Consider this. As part of a voter mandate to study how transit can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, transit planners in San Francisco have thought about what would be needed if a substantial portion of motorists in that city switched to transit.[7] Currently the transit system, Muni, is at capacity carrying roughly 700,000 passengers a day. Planners estimate that in order to reduce the city's greenhouse gas footprint by 20 percent, transit would need to expand by 25 percent, and carry 920,000 daily passengers. This actually approaches the city's peak ridership of 970,000 at the end of World War Two, as the federal government coordinated transit for the war machine. But Muni's expansion needs several hundred million dollars of annual operating funds. These are funds that the city does not have. The federal government should make it a core part of energy policy to provide that operations support and to support public transit operations throughout the nation. Public transit is energy policy.

Yet public transit service throughout the nation has been cut because of local and state revenue shortfalls due to the financial meltdown in 2008. That, coupled with increased health care and pension costs for transit drivers, meant rapidly increased operating costs but rapidly shrinking revenue. For example, in San Francisco a draconian 10 percent service cut went into effect in May even as people demand better transit service -- and even as the city's system is at capacity. If thousands of people suddenly stopped driving and took transit, the existing system could not absorb the new riders.

All transit systems in the U.S. need an emergency cash infusion to sustain current operating levels and to expand capacity in order to absorb new riders. In Congress, $2 billion is being proffered as a Band-Aid for this national transit crisis. That $2 billion is not enough for all of the transit systems throughout the nation, and needs to be substantially increased to meet existing demands. The government bailed out banks and automobile companies that it deemed "too big to fail." Given the ecological disaster in the Gulf and the much-needed moratorium on drilling, public transit is now too big to fail if we are going to get out of this.

4590205352_79ed0a4799.jpgPhoto: Bryan Goebel

Bicycle Systems

Obviously it will be hard to get transit capacity expansion ratcheted up immediately, but Congress can act fast and at least make operating funds available now. But to be clear, in the early phase of the drilling moratorium, transit will not be adequate to absorb a 20 percent reduction in driving. This will take months to bring online. Therefore, in the short-term, there is a quick, cheap, and nimble solution to help get us to 20 percent reductions in driving -- bicycles. Bicycles do not require expensive, long-term capital investment. A bicycle system can be developed rapidly. Unlike transit systems, a bicycle system does not require large operating costs. In San Francisco the modest, off-the-shelf bicycle plan would cost $24.5 million to implement.[8] Though modest in scope it is expected to take five years to implement, mainly due to funding issues, and because of resistance by local motorists for removal of car space in order to create space for bicycles. With political will, San Francisco's modest bike plan could take just six months to deploy and would have minimal operating costs when compared to transit and automobile systems. Repeat this throughout the nation in all urban areas, and this can be synchronized with a longer moratorium on offshore drilling.

Bicycles are practical and can meet many needs. Throughout the U.S., 40 percent of all car trips are less than five miles, the ideal spatial range of bicycling, and some argue that 20 percent of all trips could be made by bicycle if the U.S. built proper infrastructure.[9] In cities like San Francisco, up to 75 percent of voters support new bike lanes.[10] But many people are hesitant to start cycling now. Large majorities of people say cycling with automobiles is uncomfortable, that there are not enough bike lanes, and that it is difficult to cross major streets.[11] Cities can address this promptly by producing truly wide, safe, interconnected bicycle lanes. In most cases the physical space is there to do it. It just requires political will and good paint. Like public transit, a bicycle system is a critical part of energy policy, and at the local level, cities and towns can do their part during this crisis by prioritizing bicycles as a cheap, quick, and effective tool for reducing driving.

Entrepreneurial jitney services

Whenever public transit and bicycles are proposed as solutions, a small but vocal group of naysayers argue that they cannot bicycle to the grocery store and carry groceries, or schlep their children to day care on buses. Some of these concerns are valid for some people, but most people are physically able and resourceful enough to manage. However, one way of rethinking grocery shopping and automobiles is to consider implementing flexible jitney services. This might be an opportunity for entrepreneurs to do their part in reducing driving by helping to promote and establish flexible, on-demand, door-to-door jitney service from grocery stores and other activities currently centered on driving. In many countries around the world, particularly where transit service is inadequate, inexpensive mini-van and shared taxi services are widespread.

While a system of jitneys would take time to implement and no doubt have political opposition from transit agencies and taxi-cab companies, an immediate short-term path to flexible jitney service could be deployed by the grocery store industry. Each grocery store could own and operate a service to provide costumers deliveries when they cannot carry groceries. This is already done in some cities and could be greatly expanded. In New York City several Whole Foods in Manhattan have no parking for costumers and instead offer delivery service for those who cannot carry their groceries home. In San Francisco both Mollie Stones and Safeway deliver groceries. This is not the panacea for everyone, but with creativity and innovation, grocery stores could be an anchor in creating licensed jitney services that contribute to reducing driving overall. More importantly, as more and more people move to urban areas and seek alternatives to driving, more urban space can be used for housing, and less for expensive and gluttonous parking space.

Personal responsibility

During World War Two, one of the key approaches to reducing driving was to promote moral arguments. Many people have seen the iconic 1942 propaganda poster "When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler." The poster showed a typical businessman in a convertible driving alone, but with the transparent, shady figure of Hitler in the passenger seat. The poster impressed on motorists that excess personal driving wasted fuel that was needed to win the war. Appealing to a sense of morals helped get people to decrease driving, and helped win World War Two. In a similar vein, if we as a nation accept the urgency of the oil spill, and of the interrelated crisis of global climate change that is connected to oil and driving, then there is a moral imperative to reduce driving today. President Obama stated that BP has a moral obligation to the Gulf of Mexico. He is right. But American motorists also have a moral obligation to reduce demand for offshore oil by reducing driving.

In many coastal states, Republicans like governors Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Bill Christ of Florida have joined Democrats like senators Barbara Boxer and Bill Nelson in opposing new offshore drilling. Reacting to the spill, Schwarzenegger said, "I see on TV the birds drenched in oil, the fishermen out of work, the massive oil spill and oil slick destroying our precious ecosystem. That will not happen here in California..." Senator Barbara Boxer used images of oiled birds in an impassioned and morally driven speech on the floor of the US Senate on June 10. She also praised California's unspoiled coastline and linked its preservation to the ban on offshore drilling in California. Environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity have filed lawsuits to halt offshore drilling plans in the Gulf of Mexico that were approved without full environmental review. Moratorium or not, offshore drilling is going to be tied up in prolonged political and legal debates for years. People in these coastal states and supporters of these environmental organizations have a moral obligation to reduce their driving if they want to stop offshore drilling. And even if they insist that they must keep driving, they can at the very least show support for those who do actually chose to reduce driving.

Individual motorists can start by accepting that the space of cars in cities must be reconfigured to accommodate public transit, cycling, and walking. Motorists who continue to drive have a moral responsibility to discontinue their local political resistance to changing our streets. They'll still be able to drive, just more slowly, with less convenience than they have now.

Throughout cities in the U.S., vocal motorists oppose proposals to re-allocate street space to favor buses or bicycles. Each time a stretch of street is considered for change, angry motorists line up at city hall to protest the change. Our cities are in a spatial stalemate, traffic is miserable, the buses move slow due to traffic, and bicyclists find haphazard, fragmented bike lanes. Often cars double-park in bike lanes, making cycling very unsafe. Meanwhile, car-oriented neighborhood organizations demand that new infill, transit-oriented housing must contain excessive amounts of parking, which then make it difficult to configure space for sustainable transport. Attempts at traffic calming or pedestrian enhancements are diluted by anger over lost parking space or because many motorists simply do not want to slow down.

All of this resistance to change by motorists needs to stop. Motorists who insist on continuing to drive need to step aside in local political debates and cede space to other modes. At the local level this sort of intransigence has been a major barrier to change, and has kept America addicted to oil. Every single skirmish over a parking space or traffic lane sets back progress in sustainable transportation. Individual motorists need to discontinue opposing change, and better yet, vocally endorse the removal of travel lanes and reductions in parking as a necessary step towards reducing oil dependency and addressing climate change. It is a matter of national security and global justice.


Today there is an ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that stems from the insatiable demand for oil and for using that oil for driving. Almost half of the oil used in the US is used for personal driving, and upwards of 68 percent of the oil we use is for all transportation. We can make a substantial dent in our oil dependency, while also giving the moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico time to work, by reducing personal driving by 20 percent. We do not have the time to wait for a magical "clean" car decades away -- we must act now.

Instead of seeking to substitute 1.7 million barrels of oil by shipping more oil in by tanker, we can offset an offshore drilling moratorium by driving 20 percent less. Instead of drilling for the sake of preserving 150,000 offshore jobs, the nation needs to immediately order thousands of new, off-the-shelf transit vehicles in the short-term -- stimulating the transit industry. Jobs in public transit can offset lost jobs in drilling. The nation must also help finance cheap and quick implementation of bicycle systems in cities and towns. Local governments can do their part by re-allocating street space to make cycling safer, and to help transit run more smoothly by avoiding traffic. Business -- particularly grocery stores -- can do their part by creating innovative new jitney services for their local communities. And individual motorists can take personal responsibility by not opposing efforts to re-allocate street space for transit and bicycling.

During World War Two the federal government coordinated a massive wartime transportation effort in a very short amount of time. Individuals, influenced by moral arguments, also did their part for the greater good. Today we need to lay out a similar vision in the service of a moral imperative. It was done during World War Two, we can do it again.

[1] U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Hearing on Offshore Oil Drilling Regulation June 9, 2010; Mineral Management Service ( 2010) Increased Safety Measures for Energy Development on the Outer Continental Shelf, May 27

[2] Delucchi, Mark and James Murphy (2008) US Military Expenditures to Protect The Persian Gulf for Motor Vehicles. Energy Policy 36, pp. 2253-2264

[3] This data comes mostly from tables 1.14, and tables 1.16 in United States Department of Energy (2009) Transportation Energy Fact Book found at . Additionally, Figure 1.7 shows the breakdown by auto, light trucks, heavy trucks, etc.

[4] Klare, Michael (2004) Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependency on Imported Petroleum. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company, New York.

[5] Much of this discussion draws from a paper by Flamm, Bradley (2006) Putting the Brakes on Non-essential Travel: 1940s Wartime Mobility, Prosperity, and the US Office of Defense Transportation. Journal of Transport History, volume 27, issue 1. Pp. 71-92. Flamm mainly bases his numbers on a 1948 report by the U.S. Office of Defense Transportation titled Civilian War Transport: A Record of the Control of Domestic Transport Operations 1941-1946.

[6] Bajaj, Vikas ( 2005) "Bush Urges Conservation as Retail Gas Prices Rise" New York Times, September 26th 2005.

[7] San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (2009) Climate Action Plan

[8] See Appendix B of the SFCTA 5YPP (PDF)

[9] Wray, Harry (2008) Pedal Power: The Quiet Rise of Bicycling in American Public Life. Boulder, Paradigm Publishers.

[10] Binder Research Poll on Bicycling in San Francisco (2007). San Francisco: David Binder Research.

[11] San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (2009). 2008 San Francisco State of Cycling Report

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog San Francisco

See all posts