Can We Avoid Running out of Oil and Minimize Its Impact on Our Environment?

December 1, 2012 | 9:00 am
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

Ask a Scientist – December 2012

J. Fishman from Scottsdale, AZ, asks “I’ve appreciated UCS’s work to reduce our reliance on coal and to champion renewable sources of energy. But trucks, buses, planes, ships, farm equipment—as well as autos—depend on oil.  Have we figured out a way to avoid running out of this nonrenewable resource, and to minimize its impact on our environment, from drilling to refining, delivery and use?” and is answered by Clean Vehicles Senior Scientist Jeremy Martin, Ph.D.

With technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing driving a boom in production of tight oil from shale in the United States, the mounting costs of oil for our climate and economy presents a far more urgent challenge than does concern about a dwindling supply.  Regardless of where our oil comes from, it causes a host of problems that we can best address by using less.

To combat these problems, the Union of Concerned Scientists has developed a practical and realistic “Half the Oil” plan. If we do nothing in the United States to improve efficiency or to invest in alternatives to oil, we will consume 22 million barrels of oil every day by 2035. Stacked end to end, that’s enough barrels each month to reach the moon. The UCS plan shows how we can cut that projected number in half over the next two decades, using 11 million fewer barrels of oil every single day by 2035. Not only will this plan help forestall the worst effects of climate change, it will put money back in our pockets by saving more than over $1.5 billion per day we would have otherwise spent on oil, while also creating jobs and cutting toxic air pollution.

So, what do we have to do? Here are some of the plan’s highlights:

Build a more efficient vehicle fleet: The Half the Oil plan starts with efficiency, and the big news here is that we’re already well on the way. The United .States. recently finalized fuel efficiency and global warming emissions standards that will nearly double the efficiency of our new cars and light trucks and cut their heat-trapping emissions in half. These vehicles account for about half the oil we use in this country, so making them more efficient is a huge step that can save us more than 4 million barrels of oil a day by 2035. Now, we need to build on this success to make progress with our commercial vehicles as well—the delivery vans, trash trucks, and big rigs that move our goods and consume some 20 percent of the fuel used on America’s highways. Improving their fuel efficiency can save about 1 million more barrels of oil each day by 2035. We don’t need rocket science to get there, just auto engineering that relies on existing fuel-sipping technologies like smarter transmissions, hybrid powertrains, and improved aerodynamics.

Promote efficiency in other areas: Applying similar efficiency strategies to non-road transportation can help make our planes, trains, and ships cleaner and more cost-effective. But wWe also use a lot of oil to fuel our industry and to heat our buildings, especially in the Northeast. By retrofitting these buildings to use less energy and improving the efficiency of oil use in the industrial sector, we can reduce our oil consumption by another 2 million barrels per day by 2035. All told, according to our calculations, increasing efficiency in our buildings, and our planes, trains, and ships can save some 2.5 million barrels of oil per day.

Unleash the potential of electric vehicles: Making existing technologies more efficient will get us far, but we can’t cut our oil use in half with efficiency alone. We also need to leverage innovation to help us get there. This means supporting advanced vehicle technology such as plug-in hybrid, battery, and fuel cell electric vehicles. Some of these vehicles are on the market already, and fuel cell vehicles are expected to hit the streets by 2015. Adopting and supporting these technologies can help Americans cut their projected oil use by nearly 1.5 million barrels each day by 2035.

Bring better biofuels to commercial scale: We can also move forward with biofuels that allow us to fuel up without putting much added pressure on our climate. The key here, though, is that we can’t ramp up our use of biofuels made from corn, soybeans, sugar, or palm oil without tremendous adverse consequences to our agricultural system. We need better biofuels—called cellulosic biofuels—that are made from non-food resources. The first commercial cellulosic biofuel plants are starting up right now. Some use the waste from our cities and towns as a resource to make fuel. Others derive fuel not from corn but from corn stalks and husks—called stover. Perhaps the greatest long-term potential lies in the prospect of cellulosic biofuels plants that derive fuel from perennial grasses like switchgrass that now naturally cover much of the nation’s prairie land. By supporting such better biofuels, our plan anticipates we can reduce projected demand for traditional oil by another 1.7 million barrels a day by 2035. (For more, see the “This Just In ” section of this month’s Pulse.)

Plan smart and expand transportation options: Finally, we can save a surprising amount of oil by getting people and products where they need to go without wasting time and oil in traffic or on unnecessary trips. This means policies for development in our cities and suburbs that reduce congestion and level the playing field for public transit, biking, and walking. These smart growth solutions can help us cut oil use by more than 1.5 million barrels per day by 2035.

The key point is, cutting America’s projected oil use in half over the next two decades is an achievable goal. To be sure, it will require stronger public policies and greater investment in existing and emerging technologies. But the costs of inaction are much higher and the benefits of this plan are clear: Half the oil means more money in the pockets of drivers. It means a stronger American auto industry, more jobs, and a more secure energy supply. It means vital progress in the fight against toxic air pollution and global warming. When it comes to our oil use, less really is more.


Dr. Jeremy Martin  is the author of more than 15 technical publications and 13 patents on topics ranging from biofuels lifecycle accounting to semiconductor manufacturing and polymer physics. Before coming to UCS, Dr. Martin worked in research, development and manufacturing of computer chips at Advanced Micro Devices. Dr. Martin has a Ph.D. in chemistry and a minor in chemical engineering from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and English literature from Haverford College.

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Elliott writes about UCS-related topics for a range of news organizations. Prior to joining UCS, Elliott was the Washington communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a foreign news editor at National Public Radio, the managing editor of American Journalism Review, and the editor of Nuclear Times and Public Citizen magazines.