Perspective by Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director, Natural Resources Defense Council
Oil is a strategic commodity second to none—it underlies the global economy and even the American way of life. Of course, other countries benefit from this fact, with about $900 million flowing out of the US to buy foreign oil every day, and about 40% of that going to OPEC.  Our dependence on oil also means that America must support military engagements in regions, such as the Persian Gulf, to defend energy sources, such as pipelines and sea lanes. As a result, America continues to be entangled with unfriendly or shaky regimes, which compromises the safety of our troops and our foreign policy objectives.
Volatility hurts us too, for as we’ve learned the price of oil can rise sharply in a short period of time. This means our economic stability is at stake because of our reliance on oil. In fact, four of the last five recessions were started by an oil price spike.  Furthermore, our environment cannot continue to bear the brunt of carbon emissions stemming from our heavy use of oil. We must fight against the increasing amount of carbon pollution entering our atmosphere if we are to leave our planet in better shape for generations to come.
How do we go about tackling the economic, environmental and national security threats posed by oil’s strategic status in America? We need to work together with government, business, non-governmental and national security experts to develop smart policies that will strengthen fuel economy standards, shift us to alternative fuel development and increase transportation infrastructure investments.
One of the current focuses of Congress is the clean energy and climate bill. Part of that debate has been about the squeeze such a bill would put on oil imports by saving oil through increased development and deployment of cleaner, more efficient vehicles such as plug-in hybrids as well as increasing domestic production.
That last fact may be a surprise to some but analysis conducted by NRDC does indeed show that targeted capture and sequestration of emissions underground can do double-duty: Safely disposing of pollution, while using the proven technique of injecting carbon dioxide into dry wells to recover more of the remaining oil.  So a strong clean energy and climate bill will unleash investment in clean energy sources and help cut our dependence on oil.
|The transportation sector accounts for about 70% of petroleum use in the US. Source: EIA. Click to enlarge.|
Further progress requires that policymakers pay attention to “the other energy bill”—the transportation authorization, which will be taken up by Congress in 2010. Thanks to higher fuel economy standards currently proposed and to key provisions in legislation like the recently-passed House American Clean Energy and Security Act, we can expect to cut our nearly 20-million-barrel-a-day petroleum habit by more than one-fifth by 2030. We can, and must, do more for the sake of national security and the environment. And since about 70% of the oil we use goes to transportation (see diagram at right) that’s exactly where we should focus additional policy solutions.
Thankfully, federal transportation policy is up for renewal. Making it a tool for getting us off oil requires boosting mobility choices for consumers to give them exits from oil dependence and the gas-price rollercoaster we’ve been subjected to in recent years.
The recently released Blueprint for Mobility Choice [earlier post]—sponsored by the Institute for the Analysis for Global Security (IAGS) and supported by Anne Korin and Gal Luft of IAGS, Jim Woolsey (former CIA Chief), Bud McFarlane (former National Security Adviser), Cliff May (President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies), and yours truly—follows four guiding principles that will move America’s transportation sector to a competitive market and help strip away oil’s status as a strategic commodity: Aligning price signals for consumers, basing investments on performance criteria including oil savings, pushing responsibility to the metropolitan level where most oil is consumed and deploying technology to improve transportation operations.
From these principles we derive a ten-point plan which would yield results, unlike much of our current pork-barrel transportation policy (some may remember the emblematic example of such spending, Alaska’s costly “bridge to nowhere” debated in the last federal transportation bill). This plan can be accessed by clicking on http://www.mobilitychoice.org/, and its adoption would yield three big results:
First, there would be more, viable choices for consumers of transportation services. More rail, more buses, as well as innovative options for ride-sharing such as bus-rapid transit and jitneys—small buses popular in other countries and used in some metropolitan areas. These investments would also be better targeted to places where they stand a better chance of being fully loaded.
Second, technology would help make our travel more efficient, by giving consumers real-time information about traffic and transit, making connections more seamless, improving traffic flow and reducing trips entirely via increased telecommuting. Technology has transformed communications, isn’t it time for it to do the same for transportation?
Third, paying for transportation services would become more rational, by more accurately accounting for the costs of securing oil resources (an oil security fee), wear-and-tear on roads (high-occupancy toll lanes) and the risks of driving (pay-as-you-drive insurance).
Our representatives in Washington must act to implement policies that bode well for energy security and climate stability. This means tackling oil’s monopoly over the transportation fuel sector by focusing more on transportation policy. We need to develop cleaner, renewable sources of energy as well as alternative means of getting around. In short, we need mobility choice.
Deron Lovaas is the Federal Transportation Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. You can read more about the Blueprint for Mobility Choice at http://MobilityChoice.org.