Number 10One of the most depressing aspects of the Gulf of Mexico oil leak is the idea that we’ve got no choice but to rely on offshore drilling and the stomach-turning dangers it carries. We know all the problems with importing oil from petro-dictatorships. Electric cars aren’t ready to replace fuel-combustion engines. The only option, political leaders tell us, is for Americans to choke down the occasional drilling catastrophe and deal with the ugly consequences.

“Accidents happen,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). “You learn from them and you try not to make sure they don’t happen again.”

“I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

“The reality of it is that we will be depending on oil and gas as we transition to a new energy future,” Ken Salazar, President Obama’s Interior secretary, told a Senate panel last week. “You are not going to turn off the lights of this country or the economy by shutting it all down.”

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Is it true that we’ve got no alternative?

The last time lawmakers truly freaked out about the problem of our oil dependence–when gas prices topped $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008–the Senate Energy Committee called in Skip Laitner, director of economic analysis at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

The committee asked Laitner what efficiency–the famously unglamorous energy strategy–could do to relieve gas prices. He gave them an astonishing figure: It could save 46 billion barrels of oil. If the U.S. made an all-out investment in energy efficiency-cutting energy waste out of vehicles, buildings, the electrical grid, and elsewhere in the economy–Laitner believes it could save the energy equivalent of 46 billion barrels by 2030.

Domestic offshore drilling produced 537 million barrels a year over the last nine years, according to the Minerals Management Service. A full-bore efficiency plan would save the equivalent of 85 years of offshore drilling.

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Looking at the transportation sector alone, Laitner recommended 10 short-term policies that would cut the need for oil. Congress eventually passed one of them-the “cash for clunkers” program. Even that could be improved upon: the lax fuel-economy standards for new cars meant the trade-in program didn’t save nearly as much fuel as it could have

If you’re tired of dead sea turtles, oil-coated marshlands, destroyed fisheries, disputes over leak rates, political cop-outs, terms like tar balls and junk shots (OK, those are funny), these are for you:

10 solutions to our oil addiction

1. A better “cash for clunkers.” Last summer’s popular program took hundreds of thousands of low-performing autos off the road, but its low standards for the fuel economy of eligible new cars made it more of an auto-industry bailout than an environmental boon. A two-year version that gave credit for only truly efficient new vehicles (35 mpg or better) would save more oil. Congress could pay for it by extending the 1978 gas guzzler tax to light trucks and SUVs–it currently applies only to passenger cars.

2. Emergency funding for endangered mass transit. A chilling 59 percent of public transit networks have cut service or raised fares (or both) since January 2009, pushing more commuters into cars. Congress could save both oil and jobs by preserving existing bus and rail lines with emergency funding.

3. A national telecommuting and videoconferencing initiative. Encouraging employees to work from home and cut back on business travel would cut fuel usage, save them money and commuting time, and probably make a lot of them happier. Congress could direct federal workers to telecommute and videoconference as much as possible. For everyone else, a campaign would help make these things more normative and socially acceptable.

4. Smarter freight movement. Congress could commission a study to explore a grab-bag of methods to lighten the impact of trucking and rail and jet shipping. “Heavy trucks might save 32 percent of energy use through a combination of improved fuel efficiencies, and better coordination to reduce empty backhauls and unnecessary travel,” Laitner writes in a journal article [PDF] Train design that reduces aerodynamic drag and collects energy from braking (as a Prius does) could produce more savings.

5. Smarter land use. Congress could direct (and help fund) local government efforts to update zoning and land-use regulations in ways that encourage compact development compatible with transit service and friendly to walkers and bikers. (Obama’s Partnership for Sustainable Communities is already taking steps in this direction.)

6. Smarter travel through IT. By equipping its trucks with directional software that helps drivers avoid left-hand turns, UPS saved 3 million gallons of fuel in a year. If the nation’s 270,000-some traffic-light systems all used technology that anticipated traffic patterns and reduced stop times, according to Laitner, they could cut transportation petroleum use by 5 to 10 percent. A national study into attacking fuel waste through information technology could yield more such gains.

7. Educating drivers. Teaching energy-efficient driving practices (such as slower acceleration) and maintenance (keeping tires inflated) would lead to fuel-saving behavioral changes. Studying why people don’t take money-saving steps like checking tire pressure could yield even more. Fuel-economy basics could also become a central part of driver’s ed programs.

8. A resolution saying efficiency is a new national priority. A “statement”–big deal, right? Well, it could be: An “efficiency is king” resolution from Congress would send a clear signal to businesses, consumers, and energy markets that would encourage them to make their own changes. Congress could also tell government agencies to move immediately on efficiency measures that would pay for themselves-and make funding contingent on that action.

9. Prizes for tech breakthroughs. The privately run Automotive X Prize offers $10 million to the first team of engineers that can invent a commercially viable 100 mpg car. Congress could consider similar incentives to encourage entrepreneurs to focus on efficiency. (The Obama administration is already funding potential high-payoff cleantech research ventures.)

10. Efficiency “visibility.” Efficiency is a largely invisible energy source. To correct that, writes Laitner, “Congress should direct and fund the Department of Commerce, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency (among others) to collaborate in the development of a National Energy Efficiency Data Center (NEEDC).” We’re learning more than we ever wanted to know about oil dispersants, blowout preventers, and other offshore rig hardware. Why not learn instead about constructive technologies?

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