Guest column: Is True Energy Independence Possible?

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Guest commentary

During the recent electoral brouhaha, both sides claimed they could drill their way to energy independence and lower the price at the pump, and both knew better.

We can drill hither and yon, and even a rig in the White House Rose Garden won't affect pump price one whit. That's because oil prices are set globally, affected by global demand, which we are unlikely to significantly influence. We are, however, close to the end of dependence on Mideast oil. We currently acquire less than 20 percent of our oil from outside our hemisphere.

Ending our imports from Saudi Arabia is a major step toward independence but doesn't free us from price spikes at the pump. When all our oil comes from the Western Hemisphere, much of it will come from the United States, but that is not critical in establishing our independence from Mideast imports. Some predict that our tar sands oil will result in the U.S. becoming the world's No. 1 producer of fossil fuels and a major exporter.

Our new "fracking" techniques of extracting oil from shale rock increases dramatically the risk of environmental disaster. We already have had a tar sands oil pipeline rupture that proved incredibly difficult to clean up. If much of our oil comes from Canada, Mexico, Columbia and even Venezuela (Hugo Chavez owns many of our gas stations), it doesn't impede our move toward total energy independence. We will continue to be at the mercy of global oil prices.

In a larger perspective, our oil needs peaked at about 20 million barrels a day. It has since drifted back to less than 18 million barrels due to the recession and the steady improvement in mileage performance by the auto manufacturers. The most encouraging move has been the president's jawboning the auto industry into accepting a 10-year goal to double our current average auto mileage to 55 mpg.

Our current oil appetite includes 5 million barrels a day for non-auto utilization: aircraft fuel, home heating, plastics, asphalt, etc. This portion is difficult to reduce, except perhaps for home heating, which can be delivered much more economically if natural gas pipelines are extended in the Northeast. The 13 million or so barrels for auto consumption can seemingly be cut in half by doubling the average mpg. This, however, is misleading. Cut my gas expense in half, and I might well drive more. There would also be more cars on the road if they become significantly cheaper to operate. And, of course, our population is growing.

An interesting sidelight, under the aegis of the law of unintended consequences, is the plight of public transportation. A prime example is the attempt to sell Florida on the efficacy of a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando. At best the economics are marginal, but look what happens when people can acquire (in a very few years) cars at regular prices, that can achieve 100 mpg or the equivalent (Chevy Volt, Ford Focus EV, Nissan Leaf, etc.). If you could drive to Orlando for about the cost of one gallon of gas, would you consider taking the train? Besides, how would you get around once you arrived at fantasyland? Rent a Zipcar, perhaps?

An even greater threat to public transportation is the advent of the driverless car. Google has already succeeded in testing a fully computerized car over several hundred thousand public miles without mishap. There are, of course, several years of testing, improving and packaging the electronics before the public can avail itself of this incredible innovation. If, in a few years, you could "undrive" a Chevy Volt, for the equivalent cost of 10 gallons of gas, from New York to Naples, in a day or two, would you consider the auto train?

The key to true energy independence rests on dramatic reduction in the use of fossil fuels. An important component is the development (and acceptance) of highly efficient hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric cars. Anyone with a shred of economic patriotism should consider at least a hybrid in their next car-buying venture. Large, luxury hybrids that achieve 40 mgp (without excessive acquisition cost) are beginning to gain traction. Standard hybrid cars that achieve close to 50 mpg are beginning to appear. The big gains in the short term will likely be plug-in hybrids that deliver a range of 60 to 100 miles with a reasonable sticker price. Eventually, the big payoff will be in full electrics like the Nissan Leaf. Owners of cars like the Volt and Leaf love their vehicles, but there are far too few of them.

Studies show that current owners of electrics and plug-ins tend to be wealthy. Yet the sixth-richest county (Collier) in the nation is woefully behind. Does anyone know why?

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