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Cleaner Fuels for the Future

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Jon Stewart did a funny, yet depressing, segment on the Daily Show last year in which he played video clips of the last eight U.S. presidents all vowing to break the nation’s dependence on oil. The takeaway – intended or not – was that President Obama’s commitments to curb our use of oil were likely to wind up, like those of his predecessors, in the dustbin of history.

President Obama must not have been watching Comedy Central that night, because the president has recently stepped forward with two groundbreaking new fuel economy standards – one for cars, the other for heavy-duty trucks – that will go a long way toward finally breaking the nation’s dependence on oil. The new standards will ultimately save more oil than we currently import from all the OPEC nations combined. 

But as important as the new fuel economy standards are, our recent report, Getting Off Oil, demonstrates that no single policy will be enough to end America’s oil addiction, nor will action at the federal level alone. It will take local, state and federal action in a host of areas to protect our environment and economy from the impacts of petroleum consumption.

Two pieces of news this week add new rays of hope that America might be turning the corner in confronting our reliance on oil:

  • First, this week saw the release of a long-awaited analysis on the economic impact of a Clean Fuel Standard in the Northeast. Clean Fuel Standards set mandatory targets for reducing the per-gallon global warming impact of transportation fuels. Translated into simple English, the standards make oil companies start using alternatives to oil; the more environmentally friendly the better. Like fuel economy standards for cars and energy efficiency standards for light bulbs (which we discussed here a couple of weeks ago), Clean Fuel Standards are technology-forcing standards – that is, they set targets for environmental performance and challenge engineers to develop the best possible solutions to meet those targets. The new analysis from Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management shows that the Clean Fuel Standard is a winner for the Northeast, with the potential to reduce gasoline and diesel consumption by 12 to 29 percent and deliver net economic savings of $26 billion to $55 billion. Those are benefits that the northeastern states - which have exerted leadership on policies ranging from the Clean Cars program to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative - should find it difficult to pass up.
  • Another benefit of the Clean Fuel Standard is that it has the power to discourage the use of dirty fuels – such as oil from Canadian tar sands. Tar sands oil production is immensely destructive of natural habitat, consumes vast amounts of water and energy, and has a greater impact on global warming gallon-for-gallon than even conventional crude. Over the next two weeks, environmentalists will be protesting the planned construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would double U.S. imports of Canadian tar sands oil, setting the nation back in the battle against oil dependence and global warming. The protests are, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper, expected to be “the largest act of civil disobedience for the climate in US history” – a sign of hope that the movement for climate protection is rebounding in the wake of the legislative disappointments of the last Congress.

With the decision on the future of the Keystone XL pipeline firmly in his hands, President Obama has the opportunity to take one more step to prove Jon Stewart wrong and become the president who finally got America off oil. Let’s hope he uses it. Let’s also hope that state policy-makers in the Northeast and elsewhere continue to move forward on solutions such as the Clean Fuel Standard that can help America make the transition to a cleaner energy system free from dependence on oil.