Gas Holes

An AP report this week announces that gasoline consumption in America “is at the start of a long-term decline.”

The premises in the article, by Jonathan Fraley (identified as “AP Energy Writer”), appear sound, and Fraley even quotes esteemed historian Daniel Yergin and the National Resources Defense Council. But even if all the premises pan out as predicted, it would still be no better than a highly qualified plus for the environment. Maybe not even that. 

Here’s the trends Fraley identifies. One, cars and trucks are becoming more fuel-efficient. Two, the government is mandating that more ethanol be used as fuel. And three, people are driving less.

But look closer. More fuel-efficient? The new fuel-efficiency standards require that in 2012, each carmaker’s fleet must average 30.1 mpg, compared to 27.5 now. In 2016, the number rises to 35.5. That might save some gas per car, but in environmental terms, it’s pathetically small, and comes years after it would have really helped. (It’s the first mandated increase since 1990.)

Ethanol? Oy vey. Fraley says that by 2022, biofuels — mostly ethanol from corn — will account for one-fourth of all fuel. But it’s been definitively demonstrated that turning corn into fuel takes up nearly as much energy as the fuel produces. The process also raises the price of corn used for food — and of other food, which it makes scarcer because more land is used for corn. And because the corn is grown mostly on industrial-scale farms, it compounds our already terrible problems with nutrient runoff, soil erosion and habitat loss.

Driving less? Well, maybe. But Pittsburgh’s parkways are still jammed tail-lights-to-the-horizon inbound in the morning and outbound at quitting time. Most people over age 16 don’t even leave their house except in a car. (And internal-combustion engines, aside from being hugely inefficient, emit most of their pollution from a cold start, so it doesn’t matter as much that you’re driving 10 miles instead of 15 as it does that you’re still driving.)

Put it all together. Even though, as Fraley notes, U.S. gasoline consumption has declined four years running (admittedly, during a gihugic recession), the upshot is that “[b]y 2030, Americans will burn at least 20 percent less gasoline than today, experts say.”

Swell. But even at that estimate would provide only a sliver of the reductions in greenhouse gasses necessary to alleviate climate change. As Fraley says, “emissions of carbon dioxide will grow more slowly” — not actually shrink.

And of course we’d still have all the other problems of a totally automobile-dependent culture, including the billions spent to build and widen roads. That would further damage wildlife habitat and ecosystems like wetlands that provide critical environmental services, while facilitating poisonous runoff into our waterways. 

Bonus fun fact: Fraley notes that even though we might be driving less a decade hence, the government projects that the number of cars will actually grow by 27 million, or about 12 percent.

Even after those four years of declining gas usage, Americans are still using 344 million gallons of gas a day. It’s by far the world’s biggest gas gluttony, in absolute terms and per capita both.

Gas holes are where the gas goes, so the gas holes can go further. Until there are far fewer of them, and until they’re no longer people’s default vehicle, our transportation system isn’t going to be much help in addressing our systematic destruction of the planet.

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