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400 ppm and Counting

May 26, 2013
The only question now is whether the relentless rise in carbon can be matched by a relentless rise in the activism necessary to stop it. —Bill McKibben

The CO2 level in our atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million (ppm), higher than at any time in the past 3 million years. The annual rate of increase has also accelerated over the past 55 years from about 1.55 ppm to more than 2.5 ppm.

NASA recently polled ten climate scientists on their reaction to this landmark number, and it is revealing how mild their reactions seem. No one is standing on a chair, screaming hysterically for change in our energy policies. This speaks to the success the radical right has had in pooh-poohing climate change. The scientists who know best the awful future we are facing are keenly sensitive to appearing to be alarmist, though we are now past the time when alarm bells should have reached deafening levels around the globe.

Obama will soon approve or disapprove the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would bring tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to other pipelines already under construction in the U.S. that would deliver it to refineries in Texas. Though in and of itself the pipeline will not increase the CO2 levels spewing into the atmosphere—if this pipeline is not approved, Alberta will find a way to ship their product to the orient— it isn’t going to help, either.

We need an energy initiative at least as ambitious as our race to the moon in the 1960s, and much more vital to all our interests. Here is one idea: Let’s cut our use of fossil fuels by 4% every year for the next 25 years. Cut our imports and cut our domestic production and utilization. In a quarter of a century, we can get to the point where we contribute nothing to the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, at least insofar as they are caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Of course, along the way, we are going to have to maximize conservation, development of renewables, and research and development aimed at keeping the lights on and the traffic moving after 2038. Is there anyone, knowing of our wealth and our resources, who can seriously doubt we could succeed?

On the other hand, knowing what we know about the way the world runs in 2013, is there anyone who can seriously believe we will embark upon anything like this in the foreseeable future? More to be expected is that we will continue our inexorable march to the Land of No Return.
tags: Oil and Gasoline

And Miles to Go...

Aug 24, 2008
These guys at Brookings—it’s just think, think, think, with them. Well, I guess that’s what a think tank is for.

Now they’ve come up with an insurance plan called Pay As You Drive. The plan, outlined in a recent report, entitled “The Impact of Pay-As-You-Drive Auto Insurance in California,”—well, that says it all. In California, according to this report, 20 percent of drivers drive 46 percent of the miles driven. Auto insurance costs are basically the same for everyone, with some variation built in for age, driving record, age of vehicle, etc., without any consideration given to miles driven. If we start considering that important variant in the pricing of auto insurance, 64 percent of households in California would have lower premiums. Not only that, but other benefits would accrue as well:

  • There would be an 8 percent reduction in driving from light-duty vehicles (the kind you and I drive).
  • The social benefits from reduced accidents and congestion would total over $10 billion per year.
  • The state of California would save $54 million a year due to reduced medical payments and spending on emergency services.
  • The reduced driving could provide 7 to 9 percent of the total CO2 reductions needed to meet California’s targets for 2020.
  • Low-income drivers would benefit the most because they tend to drive the fewest miles.
The point of insurance is to share the cost of the risk inherent in the activity being insured, with all of us knowing that only a fraction of us will suffer the costs of those risks during the term of the coverage. We are betting we will be among those suffering those costs, which is why we are willing to pay a fraction of them.

The Brookings solution argues, in effect, that the person who drives 20,000 miles a year is ten times more likely to suffer the risky outcomes of that activity than the person who drives 2,000 miles a year; however, I am not at all sure that is the case. Simple math does not always suffice to gauge or predict human activity. The struggling salesman who puts 100,000 miles on his odometer every year may very well be a great deal more adept at the wheel than the millionaire octogenarian who only drives his Lexus to church every week. The variations built into auto insurance already, and mentioned above—age, past driving record, value of one’s vehicle—are probably by themselves adequate and sufficient criteria for justifying variable rates, and perhaps we only need to tweak those rates some to realize the other beneficial outcomes listed above.

I could be wrong about that. However, this Brookings report contains nothing to convince me of that.
tags: Oil and Gasoline

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Driven to Despair

Aug 19, 2008
Americans drove nearly 10 billion fewer miles in May 2008 than they did in May 2007.1 We still burned through a goodly pot of nonrenewable energy driving 254.7 billion miles. Let’s see, figuring a generous 20 miles to the gallon, that’s around 13 billion gallons—just in May! Our grandchildren are going to be appalled at our profligacy.

Meanwhile, what should be cause for some celebration has suddenly morphed into an accompanying catastrophe. In an article on Stateline.org, we learn that “States worry about dwindling road funds.” States use funds from gasoline taxes to pay for road, rail, and bridge work, sometimes supplementing those funds with taxes from new car sales. With both driving and new car sales down, their departments of transportation are beginning to feel—in the immortal words of Tom Lehrer—like Christian Scientists with appendicitis. The panic that has set in has reached Congress, where they are trying to grab $8 billion from the General Fund to make up a shortfall in this year’s Highway Trust Fund. Bush, of course, is opposed, as he is opposed to all measures to benefit anyone but America’s wealthiest. Key interest groups, such as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, say 400,000 jobs could be at stake should funding expected from Washington be delayed.

This “perfect storm” of bad news for the transportation sector strikes me as a golden opportunity. Higher gasoline prices have done what no amount of palaver, handwringing, and fancy think tank reports have been able to accomplish—we’re driving less, carpooling and busing more, and buying smaller, more energy-efficient vehicles. And what’s happened because of that in the last couple of weeks? The price of gas has plummeted. Hip-Hip Hooray! Now let’s keep up the momentum, and raise federal and state gasoline taxes proportionally to a sufficient level to fund our infrastructure maintenance. This will keep the price of gasoline up there around $4 a gallon; people will, at that rate, continue to drive less and make smarter new car purchases; and the price of gasoline may be stabilized—right at that threshold of pain that encourages us to do the right thing.

And out of a perfect storm of bad news comes a bright new day. Whaddaya say, Barack?

Update: We dropped even more miles in June, driving 12.2 billion miles less—a 4.7 percent decline—from June 2007.2
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1Nearly 10 Billion Fewer Miles Driven in May 2008 Than May 2007, U.S. Department of Transportation (Accessed August 12, 2008)
2Fewer Americans hit the road in June, by Martin Zimmerman in the LA Times, August 14, 2008 (Accessed August 14, 2008)
tags: Oil and Gasoline

Read the Stateline Story

Fill ’Er Up!

May 26, 2008
The Consumer Federation of America, a consortium of over 300 nonprofit, pro-consumer organizations, released its first quarterly report on consumption, prices, and imports of oil: Ending America’s Oil Addiction (18 pp.). Among its more notable findings:

  • Per capita gas consumption is down about 6% since 2004.
  • Automobiles emit about 23.9 pounds of CO2 gas for every gallon of gas consumed.
  • In the first quarter of 2007, that amounted to about 400 million tons of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.
  • The price of gas today is over 150% higher than in 2002, with an increase of almost $2.00 per gallon.
  • Over the past three years, polls indicate that more of us are expressing “great concern” over oil prices (73% today versus 46% in 2004). We‘re also more concerned over the effect of increasing imports on national security (60% to 48%). However, the percent expressing “great concern” over global warming in that period has only inched up from 36 to 37%.
  • Large increases in prices and expenditures are not being nearly matched by declines in consumption.
  • Sales of more fuel-efficient vehicles are on the rise but, again, not in proportion to the increased costs of fuel.
  • The CFA’s conclusions may be summarized thus: We care about the issues involved in our addiction to oil, but are unable to do much about them without congressional mandates for more fuel-efficient standards and through the implementation of other measures.

tags: Oil and Gasoline

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