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What Will Our Future Be Like If We Don’t Change How We Get Around?

What will transportation be like in 2030? It depends a lot on what policies we institute, a RAND report finds. Image: ##http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR246.html## RAND##

What will transportation be like in 2030? It depends a lot on what policies we institute, a RAND report finds. Image: RAND

How will Americans get around in the year 2030? A recent report from the RAND Corporation lays out two “plausible futures” developed though a “scenario analysis” and vetted by outside experts. While RAND takes a decidedly agnostic stance toward the implications of each scenario, the choice that emerges is still pretty stark.

In the first scenario, oil prices continue to climb until 2030 and greenhouse gas emissions are tightly regulated, as a result of the recognition of the harm caused by global warming. Zoning laws have been reformed to promote walkable urban and suburban communities. Transit use has increased substantially. Road pricing is widely used to limit congestion and generate revenue for transportation projects. Vehicle efficiency standards have been tightened, and most drivers use electric vehicles. This is the scenario researchers at RAND call, rather dourly, “No Free Lunch.”

In the second scenario, “Fueled and Freewheeling,” oil prices are relatively low in 2030 due to increasingly advanced extraction methods. Americans’ relationship to energy is much like it was in the 1980s and 1990s. We’ll own more vehicles overall and drive more miles. Suburbanization will continue. Roads are in bad shape because no revenues are raised to repair them. Congestion is worse. This scenario represents the future if little action is taken to counter the effects of global warming.

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Obama’s Clean Energy Policy Elevates Efficient Cars Over Efficient Modes

It has a nice ring to it: using oil and gas revenue to shift transportation off oil and gas dependence. President Obama announced a plan to do just that on Friday — but the details of his plan are disappointing if you want to see the conversation on clean transportation go beyond cars.

Hey, it's OK -- they're all electric cars. Photo: A Marked Man

The Energy Security Trust would be funded with $2 billion in oil and gas revenues, in what the Washington Post called a “jujitsu” move – using oil and gas money to hasten the elimination of oil and gas as a transportation fuel.

This handy infographic from the Energy Department about what the money will fund shows just how narrowly defined the trust is. Light fuel tanks for natural gas, advanced vehicle batteries, cleaner biofuels, hydrogen fuel-cell technology. But as David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment’s Climate Program notes, “it has the distinct sound — to use a Zen Buddhist metaphor — of one hand clapping.”

“Certainly, electric vehicles and advanced biofuels are a key tool in drastically reducing the 70 percent of total U.S. oil consumption devoted to transportation,” Burwell said. “However, it misses at least two additional key elements of any oil-back-out scheme — (1) more trip choices and (2) reducing the need to travel.”

Obama has shown an impressive resolve to reduce vehicle emissions but not much desire to reduce vehicle trips. While his transportation budgets have enabled some progress on rail and transit, and his infrastructure initiatives focus on maintenance instead of road expansion, his signature program – the increase in CAFE standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 – would do nothing to reduce traffic, create more transportation choices, or encourage walkable development.

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Study: Electric Cars Not So Green Unless Powered by Renewables

A study by the government of the Australian state of Victoria highlights the limits of electric cars, in isolation, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Australian government researchers say electric vehicles are no environmental panacea. Photo: The Age

The Victorian government’s ongoing “electric vehicle trial” [PDF] found that electric cars powered by coal may actually produce more carbon emissions than petroleum-fueled cars over the lifetime of the vehicle, from manufacturing to junkyard. This is due in part to the added environmental impacts of the lithium batteries that electric cars require.

This is not to say that EVs won’t improve on internal combustion engines. It all depends on where the electricity comes from. The authors found that, taking into account the full vehicle life-cycle, an electric car powered by 100 percent renewable energy — like wind and solar — can begin outperforming gas-powered cars after two years of use.

In the United States, the cleanest sources of electricity are near the coasts, and EVs in those areas outperform the best hybrids, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists released last spring. But in the Midwest and Mountain West, coal-powered energy generation makes EVs dirtier.

Of course, even setting aside the deaths, injuries, chronic diseases, and traffic jams caused by a car-dependent transportation system, vehicle emissions are far from the only environmental cost of cars. To reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, cutting down on the “embedded energy” that comes with sprawling development is absolutely essential. And while cleaner cars can help curb global warming, the wrong incentives for their use can also dump more carbon into the air. To the extent that policies discourage transit, biking, or walking in order to favor electric vehicles, the net effect can actually backfire. Witness Denmark’s incentives to park electric cars in the center city, which undermines the high mode-share for greener modes of travel.

The Australian government has been providing a better incentive, helping gas stations install electric vehicle charging facilities. The city of Melbourne currently has about 30 such stations in the central business district but 10 more are on the way as part of a government trial, reports Melbourne’s The Age.

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Not a Word About Transit in Obama Jobs Plan

President Obama released a blueprint for his second term yesterday, a 20-page booklet focused on job creation [PDF]. Let’s be clear: This came from his campaign machine, not the White House.

In the booklet, called “The New Economic Patriotism: A Plan For Jobs and Middle-Class Security,” Obama touts his success at keeping the American auto industry alive through government life support, saying the bailout brought back the nearly-extinct manufacturing sector in the United States.

He also commits to drilling in the Arctic and the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, it’s part of Obama’s “all of the above” strategy that includes renewable energy sources, but it’s also got a lot of oil and gas, not to mention “clean” coal.

While about 70 percent of U.S. oil consumption is used for transportation, there’s not much in the document about investing in smarter, more efficient ways to get around.

The President mentions the doubling of fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025, but that’s all he has to say about how to reduce fuel consumption. It would be refreshing to see a mention of transit and active transportation, freight rail, or even his apparently abandoned signature initiative around high-speed passenger rail. Reducing the appetite for drilling in the Arctic could be a more inspiring rallying cry than this surrender to our oil overlords.

At the end of the section on energy, in boldface, Obama says, “And by growing American energy, we can keep our young men and women working here at home, not fighting wars on foreign soil.” If he’d replaced — or at least supplemented – ”growing American energy” with “building American transit,” he could have made a more convincing and coherent argument.

Later in the document, in a section on deficit reduction, Obama proposes to “commit half of the money saved from responsibly ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to reducing the deficit and the other half to putting Americans back to work rebuilding roads, bridges, runways, and schools here in the United States.” Still no mention of “transit” amidst the roads and bridges. No hint that we can fund transportation projects that use space and energy more efficiently, so that perhaps we can avoid the next war over oil.

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What Went Unsaid at Last Night’s Debate

If you want to hear the President say "transit" on the national stage, you have to put the words in his mouth. Image: AP

At last night’s presidential debate in Nassau County, the best opening for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to talk about transportation policy came when undecided voter Phillip Tricolla asked the following question of the President:

QUESTION: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it’s not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?

Let’s imagine the contours of the straightforward, leveling-with-America response that never came:

OBAMA: Yes, I do agree with Secretary Chu that it is not the job of the Energy Department to lower gas prices, any more than it’s the job of the Commerce Department to lower the price of tin or cotton.

But there’s a lot we can do to become more resilient in the face of oil price shocks. We can give people real transportation choices — invest more in transit, and in making our streets safer – so you aren’t forced to burn a gallon of gas every time you need to pick up some groceries.

My administration has started us down a smarter path with the Sustainable Communities Initiative and the Department of Transportation’s TIGER program. These programs are laying the groundwork for a 21st Century transportation system that makes our communities more productive and efficient while reducing our addiction to oil. If we make these investments, not only will we free ourselves from constantly worrying about prices at the pump, we’ll also stave off the disaster of climate change and prevent the kind of droughts and other extreme weather events that are battering America.

Feel free to add your own embellishments in the comments.

Maybe in an electoral system where the most valuable votes aren’t highly concentrated in the suburbs of swing states, you would see at least some part of that answer aired in a national debate. But here’s what the candidates actually said — apart from a few references to efficiency and the global oil market from Obama, it was basically a contest to see who could convince America that he would open up more land for fossil fuel extraction:

OBAMA: The most important thing we can do is to make sure we control our own energy. So here’s what I’ve done since I’ve been president. We have increased oil production to the highest levels in 16 years.

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Romney Energy Plan: More Drilling, More Oil Dependence

Big oil makes $374 million a day in profits -- which gives them ample resources to pump into presidential politics. Source: Center for American Progress

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney unveiled his energy plan today [PDF]. The idea is to break our addiction to foreign oil — by increasing our addiction to domestic oil. If by “domestic” we mean Canada, Mexico, and the U.S.

Essentially, the plan is to go bananas on oil drilling. States would have the right to drill off their own shores, with merely a federal rubber stamp. Grist’s Philip Bump explains why oil drilling isn’t something that should be left to the states:

There’s a reason that the federal government has a legitimate role in monitoring extraction and resource development: Pollution and impacts don’t stop at state lines. It’s why the EPA is trying to figure out how to regulate cross-state air pollution. Air doesn’t care about borders.

And then there’s the obvious problem: Do residents of Florida want Georgia to build a series of unsafe oil derricks off its coast? Will any state still want to border Texas? Hard to see how this doesn’t result in a production boom — of complaints and lawsuits filed in federal courts.

There’s nothing in the document about reducing fossil fuel consumption. That just doesn’t figure in. No examination of how the nation uses energy and how it could use less.

“By 2025, [Obama's] increased CAFE standards are expected to reduce U.S. oil consumption by about 2.2 million barrels per day,” Brad Plumer writes in the Washington Post. “Without those rules, energy independence looks nearly impossible. And Romney, for his part, has pledged to overturn those fuel-economy rules.” To say nothing of Paul Ryan’s plan to continue outdated policies that enable sprawl and eliminate federal transportation programs that don’t involve highways.

Romney’s plan is just about ending imports from the Middle East. That’s it. It won’t protect consumers from volatile gas prices, it won’t curb greenhouse gas emissions, it won’t make our cities better places, it won’t protect farmland — all things a real energy policy would do.

As Rachel Maddow said on her show in 2010, “Energy independence is not the issue. The issue is dependence on oil, period. And it’s an important distinction because we are at a point where we actually need to do something about our dependence on oil.”

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Billionaire Oil Driller Serving as Romney Energy Advisor

When it comes to transportation and energy policy, it’s tough to tell exactly where Mitt Romney stands, but there’s a lot to be learned by watching whom he’s keeping close.

Billionaire oil driller Harold Hamm is serving as an advisor to the Romney campaign and believes that America can drill its way out of its energy problems. Photo: Washington Post

Yesterday we covered how his VP choice, Paul Ryan, looks to be a policy disaster for sustainable transportation. Ryan indicated in his attention-grabbing but largely symbolic 2012 budget proposal that he would eliminate “dozens of separate highway programs,” presumably TIGER, high-speed rail, safe routes to school and other “highway programs” that build other things besides highways.

Here’s another interesting figure in the Romney camp. The Washington Post reports that one of his big financial backers is the CEO of Continental Resources, an oil exploration company based in Oklahoma best known for its leading role in extracting fossil fuels from the Bakken formation, which stretches across parts of Montana, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan.

Harold Hamm, the world’s 76th richest man, has some interesting thoughts, one might say, about energy policy. He makes no secret that he thinks more environmentally intensive oil drilling practices should be actively promoted and subsidized by the government. And he’s not a fan of the Obama administration’s policies to support renewable energy sources and reduced reliance on fossil fuels. On a website Hamm calls “CEO Insights,” the 66-year-old multi-billionaire has this to say:

Since President Obama’s election three and a half years ago, he and his administration have done everything in their power to stop fossil fuel usage, including a carbon tax, increased federal regulations, delays in federal permitting, infrastructure permitting denials for the Keystone XL Pipeline, capital starvation for drilling by the elimination of intangible drilling costs, and depletion allowance. All of these actions are designed to result in higher costs at the pump for the consumer. At the same time, there are billions of dollars in subsidies being given to solar, wind and all other alternative sources of energy.

In short, the President is opposed to drilling for oil and gas to supply America’s needs and future. I have been in this business for over 45 years and I can assure you there just isn’t any way to coax oil and gas from the rocks they are in to bring them to the surface for consumption without drilling a well! The President is faced with a situation today which even he doesn’t have the power to stop. I will just call it the modern-day American Energy Renaissance.

He goes on to explain how fracking and horizontal drilling technology could be used to drastically expand domestic fossil fuel production.

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To Address Demand for Oil, We Must Focus on Transportation

4592120939_8898c25834.jpgThe consequences of our transportation policy. (Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via Flickr)
Editor's note: Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) sent us this commentary on the the BP oil spill, climate change, and the need for transportation reform.

Last Tuesday night, President Obama delivered his first speech from the Oval Office on the single greatest challenge our nation faces: how we supply and consume energy.

The searing images we’re seeing from the Gulf Coast -- of the families who lost loved ones, of people out of work and of oil-coated birds and dolphins -- are daily reminders of what’s at stake when we drill, baby, drill.

The truth is that we are drilling 150 miles offshore and one mile below the earth’s surface because we have run out of accessible oil. Most shocking is how small a difference this oil makes to our energy needs. The 35-60,000 barrels spewing daily from the Gulf floor would be enough to power our nation’s cars for just four minutes.

Whether from the Gulf of Mexico or Persian Gulf, we cannot meet our nation’s energy needs by drilling. We are at a precipice, and I stand firmly with President Obama when it comes to Congress passing legislation that arms the nation with clean energy.

But frankly, we need to do more on these issues, especially by addressing transportation and how we build in our communities.

The transportation sector accounts for almost three-quarters of U.S. oil consumption and one-third of our carbon emissions. If we really want to break our dependence on oil and improve our global competitiveness, we must focus on the way people commute and move goods.

Being truly aggressive about where and how we build can save even more money and energy -- with the potential to cut carbon pollution 12-16 percent by 2030 and save more than a million barrels of oil a day.

This is not the first thing that comes to mind for most people, but to ensure our energy security, we need a comprehensive approach. I hope this becomes part of the future message and, more importantly, a key focus of Congressional action.

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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]

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Transit Industry and State DOTs Agree: Senate Climate Bill Needs ‘Rewrite’

The transit industry's leading D.C. lobbying outlet today joined the umbrella group for state DOTs and two major construction groups to protest the Senate climate bill's failure to set aside all of the revenue from its proposed new fuel fees for infrastructure projects -- specifically, to the cash-strapped highway trust fund that is generally split, 80-20, between roads and transit.

030210_Senate_climate_bill_full_600.jpgSens. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), center, and John Kerry (D-MA), right, with onetime climate bill cosponsor Lindsey Graham (R-SC) at left. (Photo: CSM)
American Public Transportation Association (APTA) chief William Millar told reporters that while the local transit agencies he represents are "very supportive of legislation to address climate change and energy issues," the Senate bill's diversion of all but about $6 billion of its fuel revenues for purposes unrelated to transportation is a matter of serious concern.

"This is one of those cases where we really can't even talk about the merits of any portion of the bill because the fundamental position is flawed," Millar said.

Referring to the legislation's promise of funding for the clean transport and land-use grants known as "CLEAN TEA" and TIGER, he added, "Many of those are very good ideas … but you can't make those ideas work if there's no significant funding to make them work, and this bill would aggravate the funding situation for public transit."

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), was more direct in outlining where state DOTs want to see the Senate climate bill's fuel revenues directed. "Channel[ing] every dollar through the highway trust fund," he said, would help the industry break through a congressional stalemate and win passage of a new six-year federal transport bill.

Stephen Sandherr, CEO of the Associated General Contractors, and Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, echoed Horsley's interpretation of the new fuel fees in the climate bill -- which are imposed on oil companies and refiners but are likely to be passed along through higher gas prices -- as a de facto "user fee" on drivers.

The climate proposal, Ruane said, does "nothing more than finance a lot of goals, which are enviable in part, on the backs of transportation users."

It remains to be seen whether the transportation industry's combative stance against the partial diversion of the bill's transportation revenue, billed as a "call for a rewrite" of the climate legislation, will help force senators into restructuring the measure. Ruane said he "like[s] the odds" facing the four groups.

But one congressional source was befuddled by APTA's move to "bit[e] the hand that feeds them" by criticizing a climate bill that stands to give broad, lasting benefits to rail and bus systems.

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