Oil is essential to our economic and national security because our transportation system runs on it. The danger of this monopoly is that consumers must pay whatever price is charged for gasoline or diesel. The danger to our nation is that our foreign policy and military strategy are hostage to the need to protect oil supplies in the Middle East.
The only way out of this box is to give consumers something new — a choice in fuels. The most powerful step that Washington has ever taken toward energy independence — the goal of half a dozen presidents, including George H.W. Bush, for whom I served in the Energy Department — was a 2007 law that put us on a path toward a competitive transportation fuel market through the production and consumption of renewable fuel in America.
Aptly named the Renewable Fuel Standard, this bipartisan piece of legislation was signed into law by George W. Bush and is strongly supported by President Barack Obama. But Big Oil is fighting back. To eliminate any threat of competition, the industry is openly campaigning to repeal it. And a valuable Maryland industry, poultry, has unwisely aligned itself with Big Oil.
Repeal of the Renewable Fuel Standard would be a devastating setback to American energy independence and economic security. It would also harm our public health and environment.
The health effects of pollution from vehicles are generally well known, and vehicles today are far cleaner than they were a few decades ago. However, small particles emitted from tailpipes remain a major health threat, and the biggest culprit is a group of toxic chemicals called aromatics that comprise a quarter of every gallon of gasoline. A recent report showed that more than 53,000 early deaths are caused every year by emissions from gasoline-burning vehicles, and Baltimore is No. 1 in the country when it comes to these avoidable deaths.
Baltimore and the Eastern Shore are also at increasing risk from rising sea levels and extreme weather events related to climate change. Coal and natural gas are often blamed, but in fact, oil is the largest source of global warming emissions in the nation.
Breaking our addiction to oil is both important and difficult. Big Oil is determined to protect its monopoly, and it works hard to prevent new fuel types from entering the market. So the fact that the Renewable Fuel Standard, which cuts into the industry's market share, was ever passed is impressive. And the fact that after just six years, 10 percent of our gasoline is made of ethanol is nothing short of remarkable.
The poultry industry argues that using corn to make ethanol is raising the price of chicken feed. In fact, the price of chicken in the supermarket depends much more on the cost of oil than the cost of corn.
What is definitely not chicken feed is the amount of money we all are saving because we are using less oil. Several economic analyses have found that using ethanol cuts gasoline prices by anywhere from 60 cents a gallon to more than a dollar. Multiply that by your own consumption — or the national total of 134 billion gallons of gasoline purchased in the U.S. per year — and the benefits are staggering.
There are nearly 6 million people in Maryland. We all breathe. Most of us drive. Do we want to breathe dirtier air and pay more at the pump so the oil industry can protect its profits?
Because of the Renewable Fuel Standard, hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in new biofuel refining capacity in the United States. We are world leaders in a new industry with exciting prospects. Companies are starting to generate ethanol on a commercial scale from agricultural waste, wood, even algae and trash, to be blended with everyday gasoline.
Technological innovation is bringing costs down and making it possible to imagine that we can break our dependence on oil. The Renewable Fuel Standard is driving this progress: with each passing year we will have more and more choice at the pump and will use less and less oil. This will help with air pollution, national security risks, and climate change.
We face real problems as a result of our oil addiction. For the sake of our own pocketbooks, our health, and our environment, we cannot afford to turn back the clock. There is too much at stake. We must move forward, one step at a time, and that means keeping the Renewable Fuel Standard in place.
Reid Detchon, a Bethesda resident, is vice president for energy and climate at the United Nations Foundation. He is also the executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a broad-based non-partisan public policy initiative. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.