President Obama unveiled his “Blueprint for Energy Security” yesterday, including a plan to cut oil imports by 1/3 over the coming decade. To say that the President’s plan is disappointing is an understatement. While paying lip service to all the typical rhetoric about our dependence on foreign oil, the President’s ‘blueprint’ for the future reads like an affirmation of the status quo   - not only does it lack vision, it ignores the fact that the challenges facing our energy future are transportation related.

The point is the ups and downs in gas prices historically have tended to be temporary.  But when you look at the long-term trends, there are going to be more ups in gas prices than downs in gas prices.  And that’s because you’ve got countries like India and China that are growing at a rapid clip, and as 2 billion more people start consuming more goods — they want cars just like we’ve got cars; they want to use energy to make their lives a little easier just like we’ve got — it is absolutely certain that demand will go up a lot faster than supply.  It’s just a fact.

The United States of America cannot afford to bet our long-term prosperity, our long-term security on a resource that will eventually run out, and even before it runs out will get more and more expensive to extract from the ground.

Seventy percent of our petroleum consumption goes to transportation — 70 percent.  And by the way, so does the second biggest chunk of most families’ budgets goes into transportation.  And that’s why one of the best ways to make our economy less dependent on oil and save folks more money is to make our transportation sector more efficient.

We’ve also made historic investments in high-speed rail and mass transit, because part of making our transportation sector cleaner and more efficient involves offering all Americans, whether they are urban, suburban, or rural, the choice to be mobile without having to get in a car and pay for gas.

With all this rhetoric, you would think that the ‘blueprint for energy security’ would involve seriously expanding the transit capacity of our cities (where most of the population lives), but that’s not the case.

Now, meeting the goal of cutting our oil dependence depends largely on two things:  first, finding and producing more oil at home; second, reducing our overall dependence on oil with cleaner alternative fuels and greater efficiency.

Now, last year, American oil production reached its highest level since 2003.  And for the first time in more than a decade, oil we imported accounted for less than half of the liquid fuel we consumed.  So that was a good trend.  To keep reducing that reliance on imports, my administration is encouraging offshore oil exploration and production — as long as it’s safe and responsible. 

If we are talking about seriously lowering dependence on foreign oil we should be lowering our dependence on all oil, foreign and domestic. Expanding US oil production is a cheap polical game that does not have a chance at impacting our dependence on oil or the price of oil at the pump. Maybe our production is up since 2003, but as the graph below from the US Department of Energy shows, US production peaked in the mid-1970′s.

From the US Department of Energy

US production has no chance of offsetting our annual oil appetite. Not even close. Our daily oil consumption is 18 million barrels per day, while our proven reserves of crude oil amount to about 19 billion barrels - that’s enough oil for about 1,000 days or 2.7 years at current rates of consumption!  Considering the challenges associated with accessing the remaining domestic reserves, one has to question the benefits of draining every last drop of oil from US soil given how little is left. It simply is not worth the environmental cost. With these numbers - who is the president fooling?

We’re also exploring and assessing new frontiers for oil and gas development from Alaska to the Mid- and South Atlantic states, because producing more oil in America can help lower oil prices, can help create jobs, and can enhance our energy security, but we’ve got to do it in the right way.

 Recent innovations have given us the opportunity to tap large reserves –- perhaps a century’s worth of reserves, a hundred years worth of reserves -– in the shale under our feet.  But just as is true in terms of us extracting oil from the ground, we’ve got to make sure that we’re extracting natural gas safely, without polluting our water supply. 

Recent innovations in natural gas exploration you say? Hmmm… you wouldn’t be talking about the amazingly destructive process of extracting natural gas by injecting fissures in the earth with a high pressure toxic cocktail, only to dump the waste from the process into neighboring rivers, lakes and valleys? Yeah, I pass on that one too.

And that’s just the plan on the supply side of things - on the demand side the president points to biofuels and nuclear energy as big winners. Sigh…is he serious?

Mr. President we need solutions that will address the real problem: we have built our lives around the car. We live in cities that are designed for cars, and we rely on an economy that is run by cars (and trucks). We need to change how we live - we do not need gimmicks that dance around the problem. How about funding a massive transit expansion program that can really impact vehicle miles traveled in cities - after all, cities are less likely to reject federal money the way partisan governors have with high speed rail money.

While you are at it, be a champion of cities. Promote smart growth planning as a basic policy of the federal government. Wherever federal dollars go to urban development, housing, or transportation they should be tied to policies that create walkable, pedestrian friendly urbanism. FHA and other banking policies currently discourage mixed-use developments, while military bases across the country are being planned and built under the same suburban paradigm that helped create the energy crisis in the first place - policies that can change with minimal cost to anyone and have a greater impact on our energy use.

We need that.  We need you to dream big.  We need you to summon that same spirit of unbridled optimism and that bold willingness to tackle tough challenges and see those challenges through that led previous generations to rise to greatness -– to save a democracy, to touch the moon, to connect the world with our own science and our own imagination.

Ditto, Mr. President - right back at you.

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4 Responses to Why President Obama’s Energy Bluerprint Should Prioritize Cities & Transit, NOT Increased Oil Production

  1. Craig says:

    Excellent commentary, Tony. When Obama speaks oif ‘winning the future’ as he did in the state of the union address, he needs to realize that younger generations are overwhelmingly rejecting the auto-centric lifestyles of suburbia and big homes and prefer vibrant cities and areas with walkability. The real test will be if city schools will be able to improve so those same people are not drawn back to suburbia for their school systems.

    Either way, this commentary speaks to why the federal HSR grants were such a debacle. That federal funding should have gone to cities to increase their connectivity network and transit options on a local level. This would have made HSR more viable nationwide - we need to have the municipal infrastucture to support it.

  2. TransitDave says:

    I’ve long ago given up on this President making common sense transportation, or any other kind of policy…….His opportunity to do so was when he first took office, when the desire for change was mixed with optimism about Mr. Obama and the willingness to try new approaches to old problems. Alas, Mr. Obama will let this crisis go to waste too, just like the last few……

    In the near term, I fear that our only hope for progress in transit is at the state and local level levels, and I think the best approach in framing the issue is how better transit will improve economic development and the quality of life in our cities, how a real metro system in Miami would help attract businesses, etc……The Federal spoils system is winding down, and there has to be a way to get some of these projects done at the state and local level….The Earlington Heights metrorail Extension, although a bad example, had no federal funding……No reason why it can’t be done right next time…….

  3. B says:

    I have always wondered why the Administration places such a strong emphasis on high speed rail as opposed to local, urban transit in cities. Think of how many miles of light rail could be built with the President’s allocation for HSR!

  4. Mike Moskos says:

    Obama could have massive effects on liveability by simply cutting all energy subsidies to zero over the course of say 10 years (you’d need at least 10 years to give people the time to adjust). The real issue is, by paying for some energy costs in their taxes, people don’t understand what energy costs them and thus live like someone else is paying the credit card (which indeed they are)

    The libertarians and deficit hawks would love it, however the fake Reagan/Rick Scott small government-types (talk small government, give big government) would quietly undermine it.

    I know that Obama “gets it”, but getting it and doing something about it are entirely different things.

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