Nibbling at the Margin: Thoughts Toward a New Year’s Resolution

January 4, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

I’ve never been enthusiastic about reducing my carbon footprint or energy consumption. It would have real effects, I know, and you can make extreme reductions, as the Riot 4 Austerity folks and others have demonstrated. But I can’t help saying to myself, “Unless everybody does it, the effects are marginal.”

Yet recent news got me thinking about that term “marginal.” After a year of remarkably low oil prices, a few months of chatter about an OPEC deal to limit production started prices edging up again. Tight oil production had seemed to be in permanent decline, but rig counts started to climb, and climbed still more after the actual deal was announced.

The nub of all this excitement was a deal to cut production by 1.8 million barrels a day, against world production of about 93 million barrels a day. The prospect of a two per cent cut in supply was enough to lift investors’ spirits and bring some of the most expensive, dirtiest extraction activity back on line.

OPEC is powerful, but in America it’s selling into the biggest national oil market in the world. American drivers in their personal vehicles use roughly ten per cent of world oil production. And about two-thirds of those drivers are concerned about global warming and understand the basic facts about it.

If American drivers cut their mileage by 20%, they would reduce world oil consumption by nearly as much as the OPEC cut- apparently enough to reverse market sentiment. It could keep the fracking industry in decline, keep oil prices low, and keep gasoline prices around $2 a gallon in the near term.

Even if half those drivers cut their driving by ten per cent, it would save about half a million barrels a day, cooling demand significantly.

Impossible? It’s been done before. Starting in 1976, Americans reduced their petroleum consumption by twenty-plus per cent (see graph below) within a year or two. Some of the cut came from industry, but much came from individuals using car pools, public transit, bicycling or walking. My experience was typical: I traded a late model gas guzzler for a more economical clunker, then commuted by motorbike for a few months, then organized a car pool.

Image Removed
USEIA, graph from Annual Energy Review 2009
What would it take to revive the Spirit of ’76? Back then, we were motivated by high gas prices and shortages. Today’s motivations are subtler: some of us are concerned about resource depletion, a great many are concerned about global warming; few are sure what to do about either. But nearly everyone is happy about $2 gasoline.

Paradoxically, that $2 gasoline is like any other limited resource: the best way to keep it around for awhile is to conserve it. We should remember, and teach our children, that any resource is valuable and should be conserved, even when it seems cheap. And conservation is our best source of clean energy. We know it works, and it’s available right now.

Americans’ devotion to the automobile is not entirely dictated by the layout of our freeways and suburbs- it’s also a matter of habit and preference, as a thoughtful comparison with Europe will show. Even in sprawling motor cities like Atlanta or Orlando, public transport networks operate alongside the legions of automobile commuters, and there are bicycle paths and walkways that could take some commuters to work.

Using public transit has an added benefit: additional ridership helps to keep the system operating and expanding, so it will be there when you and others need it. (For that reason alone, I think we who believe in public transit ought to use it when practicable.)

Even when there’s no way but the highway, car pooling can cut your personal gas consumption by three-quarters (plus you get to drive in those restricted lanes). Just combining errands saves time and gasoline- try to avoid single-destination trips.

If you live in the country and need your pickup truck to get around, you could consider joining a neighbor for trips into town. The timing might work out; tradition has it that farmers go to town when it rains.

I’ve cut my family’s gas consumption more than 20% by using bicycle and bus for personal errands. But I’m retired, so it’s fairly easy for me. If you’re commuting to a job and/or taking kids to after school activities, you have many more constraints and fewer choices. Reducing gas consumption will take careful planning and extra effort. (If you’re driving kids to and from school, think again about the school bus.)

The nifty thing about personal action is that 100% of your effort goes toward your intended goal. You don’t have to donate to some big organization with lots of overhead, don’t have to join the “Trump resistance” or the Trump supporters, don’t need to argue with anyone about global warming or peak oil. Just use your time and effort to take some measures that make sense.

It isn’t “just”, I know. It takes planning, time and effort. But for many of us, it’s doable. If you can see a way to cut your driving by even a few per cent, it’s worth doing. In a small way, you’ll help to slow global warming, to slow oil depletion, even to keep gasoline around $2 for awhile. And by visibly practicing conservation, you’ll help to nudge the nation in the direction it needs to be going.

If you’re already conserving, or even Rioting 4 Austerity, good for you. Riot On!


Teaser photo credit: By Anton CroosOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Tags: conservation, energy consumption, powering down, sustainable transport