I have a love for folk music. I recently heard the cantor sing “Where have all the Flowers Gone?” at a service for the Jewish High Holidays. It brought back a lot of memories concerning the ‘60s: a period of hope, achievement and tragedy in America.
Excuse me if I take one line from the song by Pete Seeger, perhaps out of context, to explore the current intellectual and real politic difficulties we have in weaning the nation off of oil. Remember the continuous refrain in every stanza concerning the human costs of war, “Oh, when will [we] ever learn?”
I think we should ask the Seeger question now, in addition to thinking about war, about the issues involved in America’s transportation sector’s continued dependence on oil and the nation’s inability to come up with a coherent transition to a renewable fuel.
Look, I hope that we can make the switch from fossil fuels to renewable fuels as soon as federal policy, technology, design and costs make the renewables and cars competitive for most folks. The sooner the better! But even when the market penetration of non-fossil-fuel powered vehicles is double, triple or quadruple what it is now, the percentage of such cars on the road will be infinitesimal compared to the cars fueled by gasoline — a derivative of oil. Think about it! 254 million vehicles exist in America. Fewer than 100,000 renewable fuel powered cars, primarily electric and electric hybrids, were sold in 2013. Given the average life span of cars, it will take a long, long time before the fleet is predominantly gasoline free. Given these facts, establishing a national strategy that, through research and development, makes renewable fuel-powered vehicles cost efficient and marketable to most Americans as soon as possible, and that, simultaneously, encourages the use of transitional fuels in flex-fuel vehicles, while far from perfect, makes common sense. The dual-linked approach is better for the economy, the environment, the consumer and the country’s security. (Ain’t going to have go to war no more…or at least less war based on oil needs.)
What is it that makes many America’s leaders in the public, nonprofit and private sector unable to act even semi-rationally concerning alternative fuels? Sure, Washington is dysfunctional and partisanship as well as special interests have prevented the development of consensus around fuel policy, but to some extent, we as citizens have not become “energized” to advocate for change. Push alternative fuels, including those derived from renewables, and the oil industry demurs with shrill “earth is flat” type lobbyists; advocate for flex-fuel automobiles, and you get both the oil industry and some in the auto industry leveraging their often negative weight in Congress and in state capitals. Try building strong bipartisan coalitions around development of choice at the pump and you are seen as a dreamer, and subject to the often challengeable absolute wisdoms shouted by different interest groups and their leaders.
Sit back and take it all in! The dialogue, or what purports to be the dialogue, concerning fuel choice often reminds me, at least, of the religious arguments about whose God is better. I don’t think anyone has recently had a direct line to God! The tolls are too expensive. Federal regulations in light of separation of church and state prevent it. Similarly, I do not know any respected analyst who finds complete truth in his or her numbers supporting one fuel over another. We hope for perfectibility, not perfection, in analytical theology.
But repeating the dysfunctional “woe is us” analysis over and over again becomes boring and seems to be an excuse for political inertia or failed leadership in all sectors — public, private and nonprofit. Paraphrasing the Pogo comic strip, we have met the enemy and he is us.
So, “when will we ever learn?” that making love is better than making war with respect to building an agreement on alternative fuel strategies? The oil industry, according to recent analyses, has reason to want to think about the future before it continuously tries to restrain our choices at the pump. Prices per barrel may soon reach the level where drilling for tight oil may be too expensive and alternative fuels may be worthy of investment. (Nothing like the profit motive to bring folks to the table!) The auto industry recently has been increasing production of flex-fuel vehicles and CAFE standards, combined with a successful push for open fuel standards and lower cost fuels, could induce even higher production levels of flex-fuel vehicles. Many environmental groups, some of whom already support a dual strategy leading to expanded transitional fuel choices and support for a faster path to renewables, seem willing to discuss a road less traveled, that is, continued use of fossil-based transitional fuels until renewables are ready for prime time. Maybe all we need now is a leader or leaders supported by informed constituencies who will bring relevant groups and individuals together around a consensus building learning table.
Thank you, Pete Seeger!