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Ending the Oil Age, One Patriot at a Time

05.15.2006 | ENVIRONMENT

With President Bush in the State of the Union in January declaring the obvious when it comes to energy policy -- America, Bush said, is "addicted to oil" -- the moment is ripe to actually do something about the problem. Charles Komanoff, a Harvard-educated energy economist who watched the Twin Towers fall a quarter-mile from his home, has a plan to cut America's oil dependency by 5 to 10 percent overnight. Accordingly, Komanoff's 40-page blueprint, which he has presented at engagements across the country, including the Petropolitics Conference in Washington, D.C. two years ago, is called "Ending the Oil Age." It maps a dozen sectors in which modest behavioral changes by large numbers of Americans could reduce the nation's petroleum use by roughly the amount supplied by Saudi Arabia.

The vision is perhaps quixotic. But Komanoff, known internationally for his pioneering expose of what he calls the "failed economics" of nuclear power, likes to think big. "The choice is clear: love of oil or love of country," he writes. "September 11 should have signaled a radical break with past policies of subsidizing oil consumption and treating every oil-consuming activity as essential, no matter how discretionary or wasteful."

Instead, the Bush administration urged Americans to go shopping. Meanwhile, beltway environmentalists such as NRDC and Friends of the Earth offered up pre-9/11 bromides, chiefly fuel efficiency standards to be imposed on Detroit -- standards that wouldn't take effect until 2009 (and real fuel savings wouldn't arrive till much later, possibly as late as 2020, because of slow vehicle fleet turnover). Komanoff wanted a plan that Americans could implement today, with immediate results. Unfortunately, when he wrote up his prescriptions, Friends of the Earth, which originally funded the research, pulled its backing, complaining that Komanoff's approach was unrealistic.

As Komanoff puts it, he simply hoped to "harness the patriotic impulse," to make Americans feel good about slimming oil use in order to "free this country," he says, "from a dangerous liaison with the Saudi regime" that is the most egregious manifestation of the national security disaster created by oil dependency -- the kind of liaison that produces a Sept. 11. Currently, Americans use 20 million barrels of oil per day, one-quarter of world consumption. Saudi Arabia provides about 1.5 million of those barrels, or 8 percent. "The rubric that I put this whole thing under," Komanoff says, "is a collectively guided change in individual behavior. What can I do individually to end an addiction that has put us in servitude to corrupt Saudi princes who tithe to Osama bin Laden? If we had this as a national ethos, then steps that are hard to imagine -- occasionally walking, cycling, traveling less -- become easy because it's a common effort."

Komanoff calculates that a reduction of just 1 in 14 car trips, for example, would alone reduce total oil usage by 3 percent, a savings of 600,000 barrels a day. "That means basically that you prioritize your trips," says Komanoff. "The average American makes ten trips by car every day -- and by trips, I mean stops at the store or at the office or at the hospital to visit the mother in law. Over the course of the year you're making 3,650 trips. In effect, I ask people to rank these trips in importance, in ability to be shortened, in feasibility of total elimination." Tiny behavioral changes, he calculates, produce significant gains when implemented on a mass scale. For example, 60 percent of American households own two or more cars. If half of those households switched a tenth of their travel to their most efficient car, the savings would amount to one percent of total gasoline consumption in the U.S.

Komanoff has similar "overnight" prescriptions for reducing jet fuel consumption (saving 180,000 barrels/day); fuel oil in buildings (saving 40,000 barrels/day via a mere 2-degree shift up or down in air conditioning and heating, respectively); and electricity use (saving 160,000 barrels/day). In this last regard, California offers a compelling model. During the Enron-engineered power crisis of 2000-2001, the state posted consistent 5-10 percent electricity savings promoted by public-service ads and financial incentives (20 percent bill credits for 20 percent cuts in usage).

Komanoff thinks of his plan as a "down-payment on a permanent restructuring of the American economy, culture and psyche that would break Middle Eastern oil dependence." He admits, though, that the key moment to strike with his proposal, in the immediate wake of Sept. 11, was wasted and lost, probably permanently. Indeed, Americans after the terrorist attacks were begging to have the patriotic impulse tapped.

But fret not, Komanoff assures: another crisis spawned by oil lies in the wings. Thanks to American SUVs and their emerging Chinese and Indian counterparts, world oil margins are razor-thin. Whether it's a conflagration in the Nigerian oilfields or sabotage in the Saudi oil port of Ras Tanura or a political squeeze in nuke-besotted Iran, some pressure point is bound to pop. Having a plan in place to instantly trim one or two million barrels a day from U.S. demand could help determine whether "addicted to oil" becomes Bush's legacy or his epitaph.

About the Author
Christopher Ketcham writes for Harper's, Men's Journal, Salon and many other publications.
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