Home The Washington Diplomat February 2008

Scholar Urges U.S. to End Its Voracious Thirst for Oil

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If the next president of the United States wants to secure a historic legacy, David Sandalow, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has a suggestion: The 44th American president should devote his or her energy to overhauling the country’s own energy policies—spending political capital to end the nation’s huge thirst for oil.

In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Sandalow acknowledged that severing this reliance will be difficult and politically risky, but he is convinced there is a growing consensus among Americans that major changes are needed to sustain the nation’s energy future.

“This is a legacy issue for our next president. It can make a deep difference for our country. If a president makes ending oil dependence a top priority, he or she has the potential to change history,” Sandalow said. “It seems to me that there is a political opportunity combined with a technological opportunity that is quite rare. This is a problem we’ve been talking about for decades, but there is a perfect storm of factors coming together that will allow us to make a difference far beyond where we have been,” Sandalow added, noting that new policies could transform the nation’s energy consumption patterns over a generation.

Sandalow is an energy and environment scholar at the Brookings Institution. He is a former assistant secretary of state and senior director on the National Security Council.

Last year, Sandalow wrote “Freedom From Oil: How the Next President Can End the United States’ Oil Addiction,” a highly regarded book that argues the new president has a huge opportunity to remake U.S. energy policy.

Following his travels around the country talking to experts and the general public, Sandalow said he has become convinced that Americans understand the need to overhaul energy policies, as breakthrough technologies and soaring prices at the gas pump prompt many to consider bold new changes.

According to Sandalow, the nation’s energy challenges are complex but can be summarized by several fairly simple propositions.

“To become independent of foreign oil, we must become independent of oil. That doesn’t mean putting no oil in our vehicles. It means giving our drivers a choice between oil and other fuels,” he said.

“The problem is that our cars and trucks are almost entirely dependent on petroleum. We need to bring alternative fuels to our transportation fleet and to substantially improve our energy efficiency,” he explained. “The fundamental issue is that there are no substitutes for oil. Oil has many positive features, but it’s our utter dependence on it that concerns me. This lack of substitutes is central to several of the most serious problems caused by oil.”

Sandalow contends that for too long, the United States has been focused on the wrong problem: the level of oil imports, which has climbed from 34 percent of total consumption in 1973 to about 60 percent now.

“The issue is not the United States’ dependence on imported oil. The issue is the world’s dependence on oil. The core problem we face today when it comes to oil is a lack of substitutes,” he argued.

Sandalow said there are two energy markets in the United States—one for transportation fuels, in which oil is overwhelmingly dominant, and another for electricity generation, in which oil is a very small factor. (Oil provides less than 3 percent of the electricity in the United States.) The United States consumes about a quarter of the oil used each year by the entire world, followed by China at 9 percent, Japan at 6 percent, and Germany, Russia and India at about 3 percent each.

“The U.S. is to oil consumption what Saudi Arabia is to oil production—the biggest by far,” Sandalow declared.

The Persian Gulf has the largest and cheapest amount of oil in the world, with more than half of the world’s proven oil reserves. Saudi Arabia alone has 20 percent of the global total. About 75 percent of the oil produced each year is traded internationally, which means that a disruption of oil supplies anywhere can affect prices everywhere.

Sandalow believes there are dangerous national security implications to America’s voracious appetite for Persian Gulf oil. That’s because to protect global supplies, the United States is an active and often controversial presence in the region—and this heavy presence is central to the critique of al-Qaeda and other radical terrorist groups that warn of U.S. dominance in the region.

But oil is currently what keeps America moving. The United States spends more than 0 billion annually on oil, or 3 percent of its gross domestic product. Sandalow pointed out that oil provides more than 96 percent of fuel for the U.S. transportation fleet. The United States consumes about 21 million barrels of oil per day, with more than 9 million barrels used for gasoline alone. Almost 1.7 million barrels every day are used in airplanes, while only 500,000 barrels are used for electricity.

Oil is also the country’s largest source of heat-trapping gases; 44 percent of our energy-related carbon dioxide emissions come from oil. In fact, the average U.S. car puts more than 1.5 tons of carbon into the air every year. “Oil is a leading cause of global warming,” Sandalow said. “Worldwide, 40 percent of fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions come from oil,” he added, noting that the number of cars and trucks on the road worldwide is projected to grow from roughly 800 million today to more than 2 billion by 2030.

Sandalow argues that the only ways to cut carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles are to improve fuel efficiency (which has been roughly constant in the United States for the past 20 years) and substitute cleaner fuels. In addition, we simply must drive less. After all, new car sales account for less than 7 percent of the total American auto fleet each year, so replacing the current vehicle fleet takes about 15 years, which means that we also have to focus our attention on the cars we already own.

Sandalow said U.S. policymakers have debated energy policy for several decades, but these debates never led to the necessary reforms. And for much of the 1980s and 1990s, oil prices were relatively low, so Americans did not see the urgency for reform.

But the soaring price of oil, hovering around 0 a barrel, along with projections that prices will remain high as global demand steadily rises, as well as the link between oil policies and terrorism have convinced many Americans and their political leaders that now is the time to act.

Sandalow argues that a comprehensive plan is needed to tackle such a massive challenge. First, he said it is critical that policymakers transform the U.S. vehicle fleet, with the government taking a number of steps to promote plug-in hybrids that are fueled by electricity.

According to Sandalow, these vehicles are the most promising technology for replacing oil. And even when the ele ctricity to run a hybrid comes from a coal plant, emissions of heat-trapping gases are less than from a conventional car running on oil. This is because electric motors are much more efficient than internal combustion engines. Major advances are occurring in this area, he said, but further progress is needed, especially regarding the cost and life of batteries for electric vehicles.

Sandalow also believes that the U.S. government should purchase 30,000 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles for its own fleet of cars, as well as offer tax credits of up to ,000 for purchasers of the first 1 million plug-in cars.

In addition, he advises that the federal government promote new battery technology and make batteries cheaper and more reliable for plug-ins because the expense of batteries is a large impediment to the sale of electric vehicles.

“Connecting our cars to the electric grid is the most important part of the solution to oil independence,” he said. “If we could connect cars to the electric grid, that would be the single best transformational step.” Continued work is also needed to increase requirements for the fuel efficiency of new vehicles based on weight and other attributes, not company-wide averages. Sandalow credited Congress for making some progress in this area in the 2007 energy bill, which raised fuel efficiency standards for the first time in three decades, saying that although it wasn’t perfect, “it was a big step in the right direction.”

In addition to electric vehicles, Sandalow said the entire U.S. fuel supply must be fundamentally altered so that Americans don’t have to rely exclusively on oil. To that end, an ambitious effort should be launched to encourage biofuels such as the increasingly popular ethanol, which is made from corn but may soon be created from switchgrass and other cellulosic sources. Sandalow predicted that biofuels could eventually replace one-third of the gasoline consumed in the United States.

Sandalow also advocates a major effort by the federal government to sponsor bold research and development programs, as well as to invest in mass transit programs, ending the historic bias toward highway construction. “We do not have a level playing field with mass transit in this country and we need one,” he said.

Most controversially, Sandalow proposes that the 18.4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax be increased by 10 cents per gallon annually for five years. This would essentially force Americans to drive less and also lead to a shift toward alternative fuels and fuel-saving technologies. He suggested that families earning ,000 or less get annual rebate checks funded by revenues from the gas tax to help defray the increase.

“This is the most politically challenging proposal, but it’s very important. It becomes more acceptable if we rebate most of the revenues back, but it still will be politically difficult,” he conceded.

Finally, the United States must begin intense and creative oil diplomacy, moving beyond an exclusive focus on the petroleum supply to addressing global demand for oil. This requires the United States to adopt strong energy policies that it can defend and cite to encourage other nations, such as China and India, to enact sweeping reforms of their own.

Sandalow acknowledged that this energy agenda is politically risky, but he defends it as achievable and necessary.

“The president is the one person who automatically gets media attention every day. He or she commands attention of the nation, drives the Congress and forges coalitions. We need a president to push and help achieve a high degree of consensus in this area.”

The 2008 U.S. presidential debate has been encouraging on the energy front, Sandalow said, noting that a number of presidential candidates have offered sound plans. But the next president must move from positive rhetoric to the hard work of changing laws, building new incentives and inspiring the American people to act.

“The voters understand the problem and are talking about energy. The most significant gap is the elite media who rarely ask presidential candidates about it, especially during the televised debates. That will change,” he predicted.

Sandalow is convinced the country is ready to support a major new energy outlook. “Ending oil independence will take sustained commitment over many years. Our nation’s oil dependence is a festering problem that has lingered for more than a generation,” he said. “If you can’t solve a problem in a year or two, politicians tend to shy away from it. We are not going to solve this problem overnight. But we can solve it in a generation.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999