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Getting America Off Oil

The oil solutions initiative
By Cam Burns

For many of us, 2004 might seem like yesterday, but in terms of oil, climate, and the economic situation, it feels like a different era. Oil prices hadn't skyrocketed up to $140 a barrel, the economy was doing fairly well, and the discussion about climate—though happening—didn't have the sense of urgency that it has today.

Despite the depth of commentary on the oil problem, RMI forged ahead and published "Winning the Oil Endgame" (WTOE), the first solution to America's oil dependence and a tangible roadmap to get the United State completely off oil by the 2050s. It was a bold and forward-looking idea.

Four years later, in the summer of 2008, oil prices spiked, hitting $140 a barrel, and solutions to America's oil addiction started proliferating. T. Boone Pickens's developed a plan. Andy Grove was also getting considerable notoriety for his plan to retrofit vehicles with electric motors. Several RMI researchers delved into the matter and found there were actually quite a few "off-oil" plans—a dozen prominent campaigns at least.

That the Institute was no longer alone in showing a way to eliminate America's dependence on oil was both encouraging and intriguing. That begged the obvious question: how are the plans different and what's going to work? Initially, one suggestion was to build an off-oil “Uber Plan,” a plan that synthesized and integrated the best ideas. But, it became clear fairly quickly that that wouldn't work.

"While all of the groups we worked with agree on freeing America from oil, the actual way of going about it is a serious point of contention," notes Bennett Cohen, an RMI researcher. "A security group might propose offshore drilling in the United States, or coal-to-liquids technologies, things that make us less reliant on foreign countries. Thus, even though their goal is to reduce oil, they're going to butt heads with environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), who want to reduce oil but replace it with things that are clean."

Biofuels are another example of such "contentious" issues, Bennett notes, as there is tremendous disagreement on how much impact the use of biofuels can have on emissions and how sustainably they can be produced. Several of the plans being circulated were very technical, some were very heavy on policy, while others were designed to generate green jobs. While some were about replacing technologies, others focused on using renewables. Many plans were broader energy initiatives. About half the plans, Bennett explains, were oil-specific and aimed at reducing use.

"At the end of the day we want to create a vision of the future that can accomplish everyone’s goals," says Kristine Chan-Lizardo, interim director for RMI's MOVE team. "How to reduce our oil needs quickly and determine what alternatives can be affordable, reliable, and environmental is the challenge."

Convening Plan Creators

Instead of allowing the differences in the plans to divert attention from the important solution these groups were all striving for, RMI partnered with the Brookings Institution and created the Oil Solutions Initiative (OSI), a multi-pronged effort to use the strengths of all the plans without losing sight of the end goal: reducing America’s dependence on oil.

RMI and Brookings then created a network which included representatives from all the groups with plans related to making the United States less oil dependent: the Alliance for Climate Protection, the Apollo Alliance, the Council on Competitiveness, the Energy Security Leadership Council, Andy Grove's "Retrofit" Plan, the Institute for 21st Century Energy, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the National Commission on Energy Policy, the National Petroleum Council, NRDC, the Pickens Plan, Set America Free, Brookings, and RMI.

After initial interviews with representatives from each group and research into the various plans themselves, RMI and Brookings convened the collection of stakeholders, at Brookings's Washington, D.C. facilities, during an Oil Solutions summit.

The December 18–19 event included additional experts from other areas related to oil. There were scientists, military officers, business leaders, environmentalists, and economists, among others. As part of the OSI work, RMI and Brookings split the challenge of reducing oil freedom dependence into the two areas of demand (use) and supply (fuel sources). On the demand side, OSI goals focus on reducing how much oil America uses in the transportation sector (in light and heavy vehicles, aviation, personal mobility, and "transit"); the supply side's focus is on alternatives like biofuels, supporting electrified vehicles, and mobility powered by non-oil sources. To further refine the aims of the initiative, goals have both a short-term (2012) and long-term (2030) horizon.

The 2012 horizon was established in order to show the current administration and Washington legislators what can be achieved within the next four years—and without requiring major infrastructure change or technological innovation.
"There’s an urgency to capturing the oil savings from this 'low-hanging fruit,'” says Kristine. "Climate change simulations project a 'point of no return' if emissions continue to rise over the next five years."

The 2030 horizon was established in order to illustrate the more serious, long-term reduction in oil use and transportation industry transformation that is possible. At the Summit, participants were split into demand and supply groups (both 2012 and 2030) and each came up with realistic targets and policies to get there.

"I think we were able to draw people out of their specific initiatives to think about the big picture and come up an overarching approach that they could support as a group," said Lionel Bony, head of RMI's Office of the Chief Scientist. "It wasn't like we took the best parts of every plan and put them together. It was all the participants' work, then we started piecing it together."

After the summit, RMI and Brookings began crafting a memo articulating certain policy recommendations that had emerged at the summit. The memo includes short-term recommendations, like a 5 percent increase in public transit utilization and a 6 percent substitution of oil with alternative liquid fuels, as well as long-term recommendations, like a 100-mile-per-gallon minimum for new light-duty vehicles and diversity in the fuels market so that no single fuel comprises more than 40 percent of demand.

"Each draft of the memo went out to all the participants for criticism, additions, changes, and updates so at the end we have a framework that'll include aspects of all these different plans and input from a diverse base of expertise" Bennett notes.

Once the memo is complete RMI and Brookings will try to solicit endorsements from a variety of organizations. One factor in getting that endorsement appears to be couching memo points in terms of goals, like reducing oil use at X percentage, rather than boosting certain technologies or approaches.

Where Next?

The memo might be presented to legislators, or even submitted to the new President. It might also signal the beginning of a lengthier collaboration with all the OSI participants.

"We built this network, we have all these collaborators," Bennett notes. "One idea is to start working on the implementation of policies. There's going to be a lot of government support for clean energy, clean technologies, and oil reduction from Washington, beginning with the stimulus package and continuing with the upcoming transit transportation and energy bills."

Another suggestion that's been made is to use the information that OSI participants have gathered to leverage the network to help make sure that dollars are spent the right way. That might mean sifting through different policy ideas or proposed projects and modeling the various oil reduction and greenhouse gas reductions impacts each has. An alternative idea is to research gaps in what is known about the technologies, practices, and actions that might come out of federal implementation of off-oil policies. Lastly, the OSI participants could be reconvened and begin working on off-oil projects collaboratively, much like Smart Garage led to a number of sub-projects aimed to foment the electric vehicle revolution.

RMI typically doesn't work in the policy arena, so the OSI Summit and related efforts have been a valuable lesson for the Institute in pushing smart solutions at the national level.

"We want to affect policy, but the process is convoluted and can be opaque to folks outside the Beltway," Bennett notes. "We are fortunate that the network we built includes D.C. insiders with a deep understanding of the policy process."
Perhaps the most surprising thing the whole process has revealed is the growing nationwide interest in getting off oil. In past decades, as soon as oil has dropped in price, it's been forgotten. By time of RMI/Brookings Oil Solutions summit, oil was back down to around $40 a barrel and the economy was tanking. But RMI and the 13 other groups' focus on oil independence shows that oil issues—that is, oil’s impact on the economy, security and the environment—have become just too weighty to be ignored.

"This is an exciting time to be involved in informing our government leaders, not only at the federal level, but at the state and city level as well," says Kristine. "I expect that the work RMI is doing in convening the Oil Solutions Initiative and creating a unified voice amongst the diverse 'off-oil' perspectives is directly affecting the barriers we commonly come across in our work with corporations and communities—namely policy and funding. When we can get our policymakers to consider the priorities outlined in the OSI memo, it will pave the way towards easier implementation of many of the solutions we have advocated for the electric grid and energy-efficient transportation, as well as transit-oriented communities."

Cam Burns is RMI's Senior Editor

--Published April 2009