Wednesday, 27 February 2008

That Petrol Emotion: Saying 'Bye' to Oil

And so last night to a lecture by David Sandalow, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of the book "Freedom From Oil: How the Next President Can End the United States' Oil Addiction." If the lecture had been in the United States I'm sure we all would have fought our way through traffic and jockeyed for a parking space. Since it was in Oxford, the bike racks were full. As it turned out, bicycles aren't among the changes Sandalow thinks we need to reduce our reliance on oil.

That greasy addiction has both environmental and national security ramifications. The oil we burn pollutes the atmosphere and the fact that it bubbles under the ground in not very nice places--Saudi Arabia, Iraq--means that our foreign policy is unhealthily obsessed with those locations.

So, what to do? Here's what Sandalow, a former advisor to President Clinton, said:
1. Broaden our vehicle fleet. The U.S. transportation infrastructure is based overwhelmingly on one thing: the internal combustion engine. Our infrastructure--refineries, gas stations--is set up to support that. But what else can we do? This:
2. Make cars that connect to the electric grid. Electric vehicles don't produce the greenhouse gases that belch from the tailpipes of gas and diesel cars. Hybrid engines are okay, but totally electric is better. (At home in Washington Sandalow drives a Prius retrofitted with lithium batteries.) But doesn't that just move pollution from the vehicle to the power plant? No, he said, because most of our pollution comes from vehicles while electric engines are so efficient that particulates would inevitably be reduced. The big benefit, he said, is plugging electric vehicles in to charge at night, when there is excess capacity in the power grid.
3. Explore biofuels. Sandalow admitted he isn't as keen on this as he once was. Creating ethanol can mean growing corn, which means using fertilizer, which means nitrate run-off, which means dead crabs in the Chesapeake Bay. But biofuel can also be made from switchgrass and other forms of cellulose that don't have as detrimental an environmental impact. At best, biofuels are a "transitional answer," he said.
4. Improve vehicle fuel-efficiency. U.S. automakers should build lighter-weight cars. They should embrace cleaner diesel engines already common in Europe. And, please, do something about 18-wheelers, which go through the air with all the aerodynamicism of a cinder block in a tub of Jell-O.
5. Invest in mass transit and reward telecommuting. Sandalow lamented that it's easier for a community in the U.S. to get government money to widen a road than to build a subway. But as anyone who's ever spent anytime in the Washington area knows, widening roads reduces congestion for about a week, after which everyone flocks to it and it's clogged again. (Widening a road to reduce congestion, Sandalow said, is like widening a belt to lose weight.) He said that working from home has benefits beyond saving oil: Telecommuting workers are happier, more productive workers.

That's a very brief synopsis of an hour-long speech based on a 272-page book. Some in the audience quibbled with some of Sandalow's points--can a U.S. president really promulgate policy that would end Americans' century-long love affair with the internal combustion engine? wouldn't the ExxonMobils of the world resist a turn away from the commodity that has made them rich?--but most seemed to buy his arguments.

China will have to play a role in the global climate change picture--600 new cars registered in Beijing every day, Sandalow said, with very few old ones being scrapped--but America is the key. After years of inaction under President Bush, Sandalow predicted the next president, whomever s/he is, will be committed to addressing global warming and, therefore, the unhealthy fixation the U.S. has on oil.

In my particularly American way I was disappointed that Sandalow didn't promise a technological, magic-bullet solution to all our problems--dialithium crystals for everyone!--but rather was saying that a lot of little things, as well as changes in behavior, would have to be combined to wean us from oil. But, hey, if I can get my hands on a Tesla Roadster, I'm all in favor of electric cars.

After the lecture the crowd was invited, as is Oxford tradition, to a reception. The lecture, sponsored by the James Martin 21st Century School at the university, was at the Museum of Natural History. As I sipped champagne and nibbled duck pancakes, I couldn't help but reflect on the aptness of the setting: On display all around us were the skeletons of dinosaurs, animals whose very skin and bones had turned to oil millennia ago. Dinosaurs, you will recall, are extinct.


Richard said...

"Dinosaurs, you will recall, are extinct."

I'm not feeling entirely chipper myself either.

What was the comment you erased yesterday? My curiosity has been piqued.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

I am sure telecommuting has its virtues, particularly if it is done on a few days in the week. But as a retired person I make it a point to go the Library of Congress every day because being cooped up at home would not satisfy me. But then the public transportation I use, though subject to the usual complaints, is acceptably good.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of saving money on gas. I was on Twinbrook Parkway. (Yes, Rockville, MD.) Last Sunday & I looked in my rear window & I saw the coolest car I have ever seen. It wasn't a "smart car".

It was neon green. But it was more of a motorcycle covered in some kind of plastic molding. But it had a steering wheel. I couldn't tell if it had 2 or 4 wheels. The back of it almost looked like a space vehicle.

I think the guy was an older man. But I wished I had a camera. It was awesome. It turned down near Rockville High School.

So John -- when you return to the States you have another mystery to solve!

John Kelly said...

@richard: It was a duplicate comment, just a little glitch of the system, nothing incendiary. Certainly not a hot stock tip with which I will make my millions.

@candadai: My morning commute is about five feet. Even so, sometimes I'm late for "work."

@anonymous: I've heard about these and seen them over here. They're basically a motorcycle in a wraparound carapace. I don't get the appeal. Much cooler, I think, is the actual 4-wheel Smart Car, which is abundant here and is now making inroads in the U.S.

mark from alexandria said...

(Itried posting earlier, but the comment hasn't appeared, so here goes a second try) Candadai's experience is similar to my staff. Most of them will work at home one day a week, but crave the interaction with others and don't want to sit at home alone with their computers. I also like to think they enjoy their clever witty boss and want to be close to him.

feckless man said...

Agree with electric vs. biofuel, especially when the biofuel is corn-based. The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C., USA) had an interesting article about enzyme research to break down crop waste and switch grass.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

John: I doubt that I shall ever hear of a shorter commute than yours.

SuburbanCorrespondent said...

You mean to say that loosening your belt does not help you lose weight? Why didn't someone tell me that 20 pounds ago?

And, um, duck pancakes? Are those ducks which didn't quite make it when crossing the road?

Tom said...

Webcast of this event is now up on

John Kelly said...

@suburbancorrespondent: I'd been warned to stay away from the fish (it tasted a bit off, I was told) and do concentrated on the duck pancakes. They were more like duck eggrolls, sliced in half and set upright on the serving tray. Quite tasty.