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Perspective: Ending Oil’s Monopoly—a Blueprint for Mobility Choice

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. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

[1] US Imports by Country of Origin (US EIA)

[2] CIBC World Market StrategEcon, 31 October 2008, p4.

[3] NRDC Policy Brief


Deron Lovaas

I disagree strongly that putting all our eggs in the cellulose E85 and FFV basket is the smartest strategy. Bending the demand curve via vehicle efficiency and mobility choice, coupled with greater fuel choice including cellulose E85 and electricity, is one strategy that is more likely to slay the oil-dependence dragon. Other fuels and technology may well play a role too. A multi-prong attack is necessary, given the scale of the challenge.


SJC: - Pooled electric small buses (10 passengers) driven (free) by one of the passenger could do a lot to reduce traffic jams, transportation cost and GHG foot print.

This may be the way to go in the future, in many places. Large diesel 40+-passenger huge buses with $60/hr unionized drivers may not bemthe best way to do it.

We way have to find and apply new ways to transport people from A to Z more efficiently.

country mouse

I thing fundamental reasons behind sprawl is quality living (i.e. green space, distance from urban violence, relatively close proximity to essential services (medical, food), and most importantly, price of property.

As one of the many enjoying the negative benefits of the current economy, I've had to move and downsize. I wanted to move closer to the city to be able to cut down commuting time to different customers. Instead, I had to move way out to where to find an apartment I could afford. Cost of transportation is climbing by 10% but, that still is $700+ a month cheaper than living in an urban apartment. (And I get to be in biking range of some really nice green space)

You want people to live near public transit, put rent control in place and drive the rent price down to 1/2 to 1/3 of what it is now. Otherwise, it's to your economic advantage move outward and get a car.

The reason I say cars are to your advantage is that there are far more employers, schools, discount stores that are not accessible by public transit than those that are. Greater opportunity for self-improvement, job changes for economic improvement, and minimizing expenditures on goods and services generally added to a better quality of life.

At the same time, I really agree that we need to get off oil. I used to believe that hybrids and electric vehicles would be sufficient but I'm seeing more and more examples showing the political and financial cost of lithium batteries pretty much shoots that dream in the head.

maybe ban all in city transport except 2 wheels? motorscooters anyone? :-)


Dont forget it wasnt developers nor was it conservatives that forced sprawl to be so low density. The devs and conservatives wanted the homes to be rather dense but greens forced massively more acers to be used by forcing vastly lower housing densities and massive strips of greenspaces filled with lawns and rusting parks few visit.

Now we have too low a pop density and specialy badly low pop density amoung low income people such that we cant provide required transit services for them because they are too low density for most mas transit systems to manage.


Most people think conserving is freezing in the dark. As soon as you tell them to ride a bus or carpool they feel restricted confined and told what to do. No one is saying put all "your eggs in one basket". Do it all, but you will find acceptance of the personal automobile running on cellulose ethanol the winner by popular demand.

Sean Prophet

Australia has CNG pumps at every gas station. The price is about half the price of petrol. All taxis and many commercial vehicles run CNG there. It's an economic imperative.

There's utterly no reason we couldn't do this in the US. Cellulose ethanol pumps should be put in at the same time. If there's not enough domestic ethanol, remove the import tariff, and we could shift some of our oil import money to buying renewable ethanol from Brazil, a friendly western country.

We don't need to wait for all EV's. Much as I'd like to see 100% penetration in the near term, there are all kinds of interim solutions just waiting for intelligent policy changes.


We have plenty of LPG and vehicles (with economy leading exports,) but little use in transport LNG .
Although domestic (home use) is widespead.


Wintermane2000, you are obviously insane. The greens "forced" urban sprawl??? What planet are you on? It wasn't the conservatives or the greens, it was everybody (americans).


It was the greens. They were the ones that forced down the density of housing developements and forced in massive so called green belts that didnt have any wildlife in them.

Dont you dare say otherwise I remember the asshats crowing about thier work on tv day after day back then.

Tim Duncan

SJC, has it right. The "major thrusts" are mainly public transportation, which are proven uncompetitive in the modern US market. Americans value their mobility freedom, regional and national connections, personal space and time more than energy security and the latest manipulations of climate change models. For 230 years the culture has built on personal choice, property, space, transport, expanding horizons and free markets. The "major thrusts" ignore this and focus on solutions that the market has been voting down since the advent of the car.

If public transit is such a great idea why does it have to be subsidized today? Because it is a poorly adapted solution, for the market where it competes. Bus transit for instances leverages all the same hidden cost advantages that cars have. Neither system pays for, oil security, public roads (well cars partly), pollution, etc. Yet for all the advantages in cost per seat mile the bus has, it can't compete. The politicians and these wonks need to listen to the market, the truest of all democracies.


"I did not miss the "major thrusts" I just don't agree with them. The first person that can offer 200 million people an alternative to car pooling and mass transit wins the prize. Cellulose E85 and FFVs IS that alternative."

No it isn't.
Ethanol isn't going to work because there just isn't enough land by a factor of 20. On the land that is available, using all the biomass and returning none of it to the soil will result in soil depletion whose end state is a dust bowl. Not to mention that there's no way in hell that we will get most of our ethanol from cellulose. It'll be from corn or other competitors for food, raising food prices astronomically. Ethanol is a very very BAD idea.

If you want a speedy alternative then it's natural gas.

The end result though is going to be PHEVs and EVs quite simply because they make sense, regardless of what happens with natural gas.

In the meantime, unfortunately, we are out of time. Peak oil is here and we have at best five years till we need to start dealing with the loss of 2 million barrels a day on a yearly basis.

We MAY have to deal with it a lot quicker if there is a flareup in the mideast.

jeff ray

Why isn't our government more concerned with recycling plastics that are strone around everywhere (lakes, rivers, wooded areas, landfills). This stuff (litter) can be reformed into crude. Look at:


We should be advocating the use of glass instead of plastic which unecessarily ties up crude. We are extremely wastefull. Plastics should be taxed or incentives could be put in place to move toward the use of more sustainable and environmentally geared products. It seems our government is more concerned with keeping things status quo by supporting the military industrial complex.


With a billion tons of biomass we can make 100 billion tons of biofuel. Use PHEVs that get 40+ mpg and we can get most of the personal cars running on it and cut our oil imports significantly.

If you read my posts, I say do it ALL. The argument that you can not run all cars on it is specious at best. But if you want broad acceptance without mandates then you need something convenient and affordable. That is going to the filling station and getting cellulose ethanol for your HEV FFV. It will not be E85 for all the cars, some will take E10 but most will use E85.

We need a rapid acceptance rate if we are going to make progress. If all new cars are FFV in 2012 we will have more than 100 million on the roads by 2020 with very little added cost. One in 10 of those might be HEV/PHEV but ALL will be FFV and getting better mileage than now. The goal is to reduce imported oil and mandating that everyone buy HEVs would not be popular.


Correction: 100 billion gallons of biofuel.


The ten points are found in the following PDF:


Electric cars, biofuels, ethanol, and flex fuel cars are deliberately not mentioned anywhere in it. However, it does say this:

"..it is necessary to remove barriers
to competition not only amongst transportation fuels but also among transportation modes. In
other words, we not only need fuel choice through vehicles that support alternatives but we
also need mobility choice.."

The barriers they mention are all technical and related to the fact that our government has forced a fuel down its citizen's throats that is not compatible with our cars or our existing pipeline infrastructure (ethanol).

Here are the names found on the mobility choice website:

Anne Korin, Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS)

Gal Luft, Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS)

Cliff May, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Robert C. McFarlane, former National Security Advisor

R. James Woolsey, former director of Central Intelligence Agency

Deron Lovaas, Natural Resources Defense Council

Pictured on the website is a 125 page book written by Korin and Luft, which according to Amazon.com reviews proposes flex fuel vehicles as the main solution.

Looks like a (very short) xenophobic polemic to me. The best way to prevent war is through mutual dependence on trade. Corn ethanol has the effect of reducing corn exports, which has a similar pound for pound impact on trade deficits as oil imports.

Cellulose ethanol is forever five years away. Corn ethanol can't scale much further. Where is all of this biofuel going to come from for all of these flex fuel cars?

Not to mention, our present biofuels have a few downsides of their own:


A car with 10% ethanol reduces average oil use about 7%. A midsized four door hatchback Toyota hybrid reduces average oil use 100% (getting double the American average mileage).

Flex-fueled cars are a fine option for anyone wanting to pay extra for one, as they would for power windows, but to force the concept onto everyone is a dumb idea any way you look at it. Our politicians are not qualified to lead in this era of rapid change and complexity.


An FFV costs the car maker about $300 more per unit, air bags cost more than that. Cellulose ethanol is being done by Range, Syntec and others. Even if it IS five years away from producing even 30 billion gallons of cellulose ethanol, that is enough for more than 30 million FFVs and some of those will be hybrids getting even better mileage.

The first person that can offer 200 million people an alternative to car pooling and mass transit wins the prize. Cellulose E85 and FFVs IS that alternative.
No it isn't.  The AVAILABLE resource is maybe 700 million tons; at feasible efficiency of 900 gallons/ton that's 63 billion gallons EtOH or about 40-45 billion gallons gasoline equivalent.  This also eliminates the resource for other uses of arguably greater value, such as carbon sequestration.  You cannot supply the needs of 200 million US drivers on this without increasing fuel efficiency by 250%, or to about 70 MPG.

Cellulosic fuels and hydrogen are both oil-company promoted distractions to avoid cutting into their market.  Grain alcohol is a farm market support program, not an energy program; if it was an energy program we would actually rate it based on the amount of fossil fuel it displaced, and we don't.

What we really need are things like PHEVs and BEVs going forward, and hybrid retrofits for existing vehicles.  A hybrid system which replaces the rear brakes would be a quick and easy way to cut fuel consumption in existing vehicles.


If you can get 700 million tons from farm and forest waste, we can get another 300 million tons from switchgrass. Even if we can only get 500 million tons we can make 50 billion gallons for about 1/3 of the cars running cellulose E85.

Since HEVs are not even 3% of sales, even IF you could get that up to 10% of sales in 10 years, we would only have about 5% of the cars on the road HEV. That is about 2 1/2% reduction in fuel usage, but we would use 10% more from population and miles driven. I would rather have more than 20% reduction with 1/3 the cars running E85.


If public transit is such a great idea why does it have to be subsidized today?

Why? To be able to compete with subsidized gasoline. Without the tax credits, government funded grants, etc. the oil companies get you'd be paying $10-15/gal at the pumps instead of the taxpayer making up the difference for you on the 15th of April. And then there are the roads and parking spaces, which are pay for through property taxes.

Henry Gibson

The best and cheapest way to store and transport hydrogen is as as a hydrocarbon as nature has demonstrated for millions of years. Capture CO2 anywhere and convert it into methanol, ethanol or propane or diesel. Almost all cars can use one or more of these fuels and little new infrastructure is needed.

The new fuel cell should be one that uses electricity and CO2 to make methanol etc. for burning in present engines. ..HG..


The problem ai win is the subsidies for oil come mostly from big bis and help big bis the subsidies for transit mostly come from middle income upper middle income and upper low income and help lowest income mostly.

Mass transit will never do well in the us as long as the people paying for it dont use it or benfit from someone else using it enough to feel the money is WELL worth it.

Meanwhile you can bet big bis is happy with what they get from oil subs.

Deron Lovaas

As a middle-class transit user (and HEV driver) I just want to make sure we stick to facts and not just opinions: The latest survey I've seen finds that 34.3 percent of transit riders have incomes higher than $50k with a medium of $39k (only slightly below the national average). In metro areas where most of us live and work, transit reduces traffic gridlock for drivers and allows many of us to go about our daily business. And with metro areas attracting more and more of the nation's businesses and residents, transit's growth should continue to outpace driving's as it has for more than a decade.

Having said all that, transit in this country leaves a lot to be desired, and would benefit from less regulation, more competition, and more investment which is part of what Mobility Choice is about.

Mobility Choice, however, is just one of an array of strategies for giving oil a run for its money in the transportation marketplace. Real vehicle and fuel choice are central to this array, as many commenters have noted.


As I said deron when mass transit gets most of its money from those who dont use it and dont see a compelling benfit to them from it you are in trouble.

In places where you can have enough middle income people using AND wanting to use mass transit you generaly have a better funded mass transit system.

But many mass transit systems across the country dont have a middle/upper middle income block to transport.

Now in some places they have found that prt systems can hook middle and upper income people and are cheaper to set up then most other transit systems.

Also high speed trains ALSO tend to hook enough higher income people to garner enough public funds... when they are put in the right places.



"The best way to prevent war is through mutual dependence on trade. Corn ethanol has the effect of reducing corn exports, which has a similar pound for pound impact on trade deficits as oil imports."

No problem there, happy to repeat it as it segways a point made recently that "green energy reduces wars."

Renewable energy being made locally strengthens much including the economy and enables trade.
"A car with 10% ethanol reduces average oil use about 7%. A midsized four door hatchback Toyota hybrid reduces average oil use 100% (getting double the American average mileage)."

I feel it is more correct to use 'pound for pound ' as studies have shown both fuel parity and other running cost benefits and savings from most ethanol mixes when engines are optimised to any degree as well as many clunkers that achieve benefits through better combustion. Hence better emissions. It is convenient and responsible to consider lb for lb.

Public transport in theory benefits the entire community in many indirect and direct ways and is capable of raising living standards by more than one point.

What would be most help is a bit of boosterintg or talking up and making fashionable the whole practice and understanding (promotion) of public transport use as a viable and agreeable option.

The costs to private transport to any community include road infrastructure pollution and health medical and trauma, lost production from the disenfranchised that spreads through low support and underdevelopment of economical and better functioning of the public infrastructure.



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