Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Oil: Our 'greatest immediate threat to U.S. economic and national security'

September 27, 2011 - 12:30 PM
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Like fueling with poison. (Photo: flickr/pat00139)

The U.S. Department of Energy has released a new 168-page review this morning of U.S. transportation and its dependence on oil, one the department hopes to conduct every four years. Its outlook isn't good — for traffic, drivers, our international relations, and in the long-term, the climate. Although the U.S. Department of Transportation handles many of these issues as well, the Department of Energy inevitably invests in how we power our vehicles and assesses the state of our nation's energy consumption. The report certainly contains enough drama about how bad the situation is, referring to our oil dependency as the "greatest immediate threat to U.S. economic and national security" and a long-term threat to the climate.

The District and countless cities throughout America rely on oil to get to work every day. More than 40% of District residents commuted to work in a car in 2010, according to the recent American Community Survey statistics. This new Department of Energy report outlines the various problems that oil creates for the U.S. as well as the ways in which America is underinvesting in critical transit areas and potentially overinvesting in others. The government report says the department worries far too much about technologies that are "multiple generations away from practical use at the expense of analyses, modeling and simulation, or other highly relevant fundamental engineering research activities that could influence the private sector in the nearer term. But changes needs to come, the report emphasizes, especially since "more than 90% of transportation services are fueled by petroleum."

Here's how the DOE is spending $3 billion of its investment dollars in its budget for the fiscal year of 2011:

Chocolate strawberries
How $3 billion is divided (Photo: U.S. Department of Energy)

The report emphasizes the ways American vehicles can save energy, such as through better aerodynamics, internal combustion engine improvements, and ways to make our vehicles more fuel-efficient. What's most effective for the short-term, the DOE notes, is improving efficiency in a variety of ways. Doing so "could save some 2 million barrels a day within a decade," as modern technology lets new vehicles become twice as efficient as those they're replacing. Vehicle fuel economy has been "largely unchanged over the past 30 years," the report points out elsewhere.

In addition to increasing fuel efficiency, the government department advocates for electrifying our fleet of light-duty vehicles, lightweighting, and seeking alternative hydrocarbon fuels.

Interestingly, the report notes that road transportation makes up 80% of the fuel the U.S. uses, hence its focus on the driver rather than on rail, air, or marine transit. At stake, of course, is our reliance on foreign countries' imports. The DOE provides a nice graph showing where our oil came from last year, and 49% comes from the Western hemisphere, 23% from Africa, and 18% from the Persian Gulf. As a result, the DOE "should gradually increase its effort on vehicle efficiency and electrification relative to alternative fuels." Given the scale and infrastructural reality of America, these efforts will, I suspect, amount to be tremendously enormous tasks and deserve serious attention. There are high hurdles to changing how our nation fuels its cars, as every president since Richard Nixon has been well aware.

What this report affects and reflects is our nation's drivers, D.C. Read it, consider it, and realize the stakes and efforts the government is hoping to take over the next few years. Anyone at the pump knows that oil prices have hurt our individual budgets throughout the past few years of recession, but the implications are even greater. The makers of this report says its goal is to affect how our government informs its budgets

Do you still want to call cars the great "freedom machine," Examiner?

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