The Cost of Petroleum Dependence and the Promise of Efficiency and Cleaner American Fuels

No population relies more on the automobile and imported fuels to get from point to point than people in the United States. The transportation sector has an enormous impact on our economy, our national energy security, and our environment. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. presently imports 53% of its petroleum. The Department expects this to rise to 75% by 2020. Currently about 20-30% of the world's petroleum exports come from the Persian Gulf region. By 2020 the Persian Gulf will be responsible for 64% of the exports, perhaps more, depending on predictions of oil reserves. Only 2% of the known reserves are located within the United States.

For the first 70 years of the 20th century, the US became the most powerful nation in the world and built the most powerful economy largely based on cheap, abundant domestic supplies of petroleum. Then domestic oil production peaked in 1970. Since then the decline has been swift and dramatic. Of the four primary energy sectors - transportation, residential, commercial and industrial - only transportation is almost exclusively dependant on petroleum-based fuels. About 97% of transportation fuel consumed kin the U.S. is petroleum-based. Compare this with about 25% petroleum-based fuel in the industrial sector, under 10% in residential and under 5% in commercial. What had been a source of national strength, taken for granted for well over half a century, has become a liability, making us vulnerable.

We pay an enormous and increasing cost, on many levels, for our dependence on oil. In 2000 Americans spent about $200,000 every minute on imported petroleum. Rather than circulating in our economy creating jobs and wealth, the exported cash is lost to us forever. Perhaps more significantly are the costs and risks we face in protecting our "strategic interests" in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere to maintain the flow of oil and try to keep the price stable. This only will become more difficult, costly and risky over time as worldwide demand rises and remaining reserves become increasingly concentrated in the Persian Gulf, a region known for political volatility and populations that are increasing hostility toward the U.S. and the west in general.

This dependence on oil also extracts a heavy toll on our health and environment. Emissions from vehicles are the single largest contributor to air pollution in most parts of Ohio. Air pollution shortens lives, causes respiratory ailments, and increases health care costs. According to a review of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, 79% of the cancer risk from airborne sources comes from diesel exhaust. Research points to causal link between exposure to smog and development of asthma. Children are particularly vulnerable and are often more greatly exposed. Aside from creating smog-forming emissions when burned, gasoline itself contains potent carcinogens including benzene, which we breathe while dispensing the gas. A California study demonstrated that children traveling inside school buses breathed air with four times the particulate concentrations than the air outside. The large impact of petroleum fuels accelerating climate change presents the most serious longer-term global environmental security risk.

Efficiency and American Fuels -Solutions Today and Bridges to the Future

We've been hearing much about the promise of an economy, including a transportation energy sector, based on hydrogen. Meaningful commercialization may occur by 2010. Some are dubious of this, believing that hydrogen and fuel cells will not gain appreciable market share until 2020 or even much later. Most believe that hydrogen eventually will reach commercial viability, if for not other reason because shrinking oil reserves and accelerating worldwide demand will cause crude prices to increase and eventually skyrocket. This will begin sometime between 2010 and 2035 - unless political disruptions or market manipulations in price and supply occur before this time.

No human knows when the hydrogen future will reach into the fabric of most Americans' lives. While we can and should be hopeful, no human knows for sure. The good news is that options, including domestic alternatives to petroleum and technologies to dramatically increase fuel efficiency, are available and viable today. Just as significantly, many of these alternatives are not only useful now, they are essential for speeding up deployment of hydrogen-powered vehicles and winning consumer acceptance of them.

These near-term alternatives include natural gas, propane, and biofuels including biodiesel, ethanol, and biogas (natural gas from renewable sources), and hybrid electric and plug-in electric vehicles. All of these cleaner American fuels and vehicle technologies can significantly reduce our dependence on imported petroleum. All of them reduce tailpipe emissions. The amount of reduction for specific pollutants, e.g. nitrogen oxides, particulates, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and others, depends on the fuel and engine in which it is used.

Obstacles exist but can be overcome. One obstacle used to be a lack of vehicles that use American fuels. Increasingly, manufacturers are offering a variety of vehicles, chassis and engines in virtually all types and sizes and running on an American fuel. Plus every diesel vehicle made today can use biodiesel. Another obstacle has been lack of refueling stations. This still presents a problem, but is changing as new investments in refueling are coming on line or being planned. More are needed. Sometimes price presents a barrier. Ethanol and biodiesel are only slightly more costly than gasoline and diesel respectively. Propane and especially natural gas are cheaper than gasoline and diesel. Propane and natural gas vehicles are more expensive when purchased new - usually at least $3,000 to $6,000 for light duty vehicles and more for heavy duty. Used vehicles that use these fuels, especially natural gas, are cheaper. Individuals might consider buying used vehicles. Fleets may consider buying a mix of new and used. Grants also are frequently available to cover most of this incremental cost, then save more money on reduced fuel and maintenance costs.

For more information about clean, domestic fuels and their advantages, please contact the Central Ohio Clean Fuels Coalition at (614) 292-5435 or [email protected].





Central Ohio Clean Fuels Coalition

930 Kinnear Road • Columbus, OH 43212

Phone: (614) 292-5435 • Fax: (614) 688-4111

[email protected]



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