Thursday, July 03, 2008

Why do we pay these people? reports that Sen. John Warner (R-Va) has an idea: Lower fuel consumption by reintroducing a lower national speed limit. That's the problem, John: Americans are driving too fast. Not that we choose to drive cars that rate less than 30 mpg; not that our infrastructure was designed for people to drive everywhere; not that our current level of fuel supply is less than demand; not that the world's two largest populations are waking up to the joys of fossil fuels; not that governments across the globe attempt to regulate fuel consumption through the tax code.

Of course, my skepticism is challenged by the facts of the case:
Congress in 1974 set a national 55 mph speed limit because of energy shortages caused by the Arab oil embargo. The speed limit was repealed in 1995 when crude oil dipped to $17 a barrel and gasoline cost $1.10 a gallon.
I was born during the Carter administration, so naturally I don't remember that particular era. Perhaps someone with a bit longer memory can help me: Was it Congress's 1974 institution of the 55 mph speed limit that brought the cost of oil to less than $20 a barrel?1

Obviously the current problems with the energy situation are complex, and any simple answer Congress puts forward will neglect more than it will address. But this is ridiculous. Do we really think that reducing 2% of our highway fuel consumption will make a dent in the world demand for oil and oil products?! This is a problem with the "baby steps" thinking that's popular in contemporary political problem solving. Not that changing our light bulbs or foregoing plastic shopping bags aren't good things to do, but by taking the "baby steps" we comfort ourselves that we're making a difference and we lose any motivation to make any real changes.

If I may offer an opinion, amateur though it may be (and what else are blogs for?): It seems that there is a positive and a negative side to the current energy climate. On the positive side, $145 a barrel oil provides significantly more motivation to develop alternative sources of energy and their concomitant technologies. If Warner's speed limit proposal has the same effect as it did in Carter's day, it will be hard to convince consumers (or developers!) to invest in hydrogen Hondas and hybrid Highlanders when oil is back down to a handful of Tic Tacs per barrel and a gallon of gas costs two buttons and a hair pin. Markets might not be comfortable, but this is how they work.

On the negative side, we are not yet to the point, technologically, to go cold turkey from fossil fuels. While our long-term problem may be that oil is not the future, our short-term problem is that oil is our present, and demand is out-pacing supply. Perhaps (perhaps!) driving more slowly could affect our national demand (though not significantly, not to mention its complete irrelevance to international demand), legislating a lower speed limit makes even less sense than adding a third of our corn supply to the gas we burn.

Regardless of which side of this debate you're on, I think the daily escalating gas prices is bound to move public opinion toward the solution suggested by the Energy Department's Angela Hill:
If Congress is serious about addressing gasoline prices, they must take action on expanding domestic oil and natural gas production.
I'd like to add an amendment to Ms Hill's suggestion: As we're expanding domestic energy supply capabilities, I would be willing to support a 5% pay increase for Sen. Warner and his colleagues (including those of the Lower House) if they would stop thinking about real issues and take up Monopoly.

1 The CNN piece suggests this very thing: "Warner cited studies that showed the 55 mph speed limit saved 167,000 barrels of oil a day, or 2 percent of the country's highway fuel consumption, while avoiding up to 4,000 traffic deaths a year."

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