Time for creative policy changes to cut dependence on oil

Recent warnings about the dangers of overreliance on petroleum have come from an unlikely cast of characters, including former presidential candidate Ron Paul, business magnate T. Boone Pickensand even a Saudi prince (who warned against his nation’s over dependence on oil exports). If Californians want to disentangle our economy from oil and from the world events that can impact oil prices while cutting our greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020—a goal given the force of law by AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act—we need to consider the surprising connections that drive our state’s dependence on petroleum.

These unexpected opportunities for cutting pollution are highlighted in the nonpartisan, nonprofit group Next 10’s recent report, Unraveling Ties to Petroleum: How policy drives California’s demand for oilauthored by Juan Matute who is director of the UCLA Local Climate Initiative. In this report we connect the dots among a variety of transportation-related policies and petroleum dependence.

What we found is surprising. Addressing just a handful of policies seemingly unrelated to fuel consumption—including parking rules and auto insurance premiums—could cut oil use by 25 percent in our state. Given that transportation accounts for 40 percent of our state’s energy use, and about 38 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, this approach offers potential for serious climate control and protection against oil price spikes.

Consider minimum parking requirements. At first blush, obliging each store, office building, and restaurant to provide enough parking for its anticipated clientele seems a matter of common sense. But there are hidden consequences. Mandating a given number of parking spaces ends up subsidizing the true cost of driving to a business and parking there because it forces the building or business to foot at least part of the bill for the parking spaces. It also increases the number of parking spaces per acre—an effect that is especially notable in areas that are densely developed already. More parking spaces per acre encourage more vehicles per acre, and this leads to more traffic congestion.

Residential parking policies matter, too. For example, where high-quality mass transit already exists, offering residents the option to pay for a parking space – or not – could make a real difference in how people choose to travel.

Or consider how road space is allocated. Cars and trucks are considered first and foremost, and road performance metrics are based on vehicle traffic. This leads to congestion “solutions” like widening roadways. But that ends up worsening congestion in corridors where the public right-of-way is limited—pretty much any place that is already built up. Thinking of transportation as a vehicle-moving issue rather than a people-moving issue inhibits a shift toward mass transit.

Removing obstacles to ridesharing would also make a big difference. About 69 percent of the passenger vehicle seat-miles in California go unfilled. Putting people in just 10 percent of those empty seats could cut motor vehicle fuel use by 18 percent.

Then there’s car insurance. Transitioning to a system where premiums rise with miles travelled could better reflect an individual driver’s risk, while also encouraging efficient trip planning. For most drivers, it would lead to lower premiums, as well.

Our study found that these five policies alone, which require no new technologies, could cut California’s use of petroleum for transportation by a whopping 25 percent. That would make a tremendous difference in greenhouse gas pollution, and help our state meet its AB 32 targets. Adjusting other policies—from how public infrastructure improvements are funded, to how car sharing is encouraged—could cut petroleum use even more.

Of course, there are trade-offs with every policy decision, and they all need to be considered before changes are made. Our study was meant to raise possibilities, not prescribe policies and we hope that local governments will look with fresh eyes at how we are inadvertently driving the use of petroleum. As our study shows, looking at a wide variety of policies through the lens of cutting fossil fuel use results in some creative solutions. And when it comes to tackling climate change as well as our petroleum dependence, California needs to think creatively.

Ed’s Note: F. Noel Perry is a businessman, philanthropist and founder of Next 10, an independent, nonpartisan organization that educates, engages and empowers Californians to improve the state’s future. Juan Matute is lead author of Unraveling Ties to Petroleum: How policy drives California’s demand for oil (www.next10.org) and he is also director of the UCLA Local Climate Initiative.   


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