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 V.15 No.8 | February 23 - March 1, 2006 

Punch Line

Hooked on Petrol

Nicotine. Caffeine. Alcohol. Cocaine. Crude oil. Regardless of the substance, kicking an addiction is tough. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

George Bush, whose family wealth and political success was built atop an oil well, admitted America “had a problem” with our oil addiction in his State of the Union Address last month. Of course, his solution was to cut our demand for Middle Eastern oil by 75 percent. Never mind that most of our oil comes from Canada, Venezuela, Mexico and Nigeria. But it's the thought that counts.

Sadly, the problem is worst in western cities like Albuquerque, where car culture is part of our identity. Forget the fact that our state depends on oil and gas revenues to fund state government and education.

OK, so now that even a Republican president from an oil family where big honking pickups are the vehicle of choice admits we have a problem, what do we do?

Hospitals, shelters and treatment facilities are filled with addicts who know they have a problem but are unable or unwilling to change their behavior. We would all like to think that if things get bad enough, we'll all get out of our cars and start walking, biking, carpooling or, God forbid, riding public transit. But let's be honest, who wants to get off their fat American arse and walk or bike to work? In a city as spread out as Albuquerque, asking anyone to get rid of their car is like asking a crack head if you can borrow his pipe for a few weeks.

My own contribution to energy conservation was trading in my SUV (it was a small one) for a Nissan sedan. OK, so it only gets 25 miles to the gallon. But if you look at the hybrids on the market and how overpriced and downright hideous they are it's hard to do the right thing. Ask the average self-proclaimed conservationist what they drive, and nine out of 10 don't drive hybrids, much less scooters or bicycles. So if even the earth muffin, neoconservationists can't kick the junk—how are you gonna pry the working man out of his Chevy S-10 King Cab?

The skyrocketing gas prices in recent months had a minimal effect on changing consumer behavior. In economics they call that “inelastic demand.” That means that no matter how much the price of something goes up, demand stays the same. That's a telltale sign of addiction. Even with the highest gas prices in American history, we still see Hummers and Escalades everywhere. Houston, we have a problem.

In Peter Tertzakian's new book, A Thousand Barrels A Second, the author acknowledges that prying the average American out from behind the wheel of his or her car will be as hard as telling a smoker to try nicotine gum for fun. So he discusses some other possibilities for reducing oil consumption without asking people to drastically change their behavior. They include reducing the average weight of cars, switching to a fuel type that gets better fuel economy or displaces the crude oil supply altogether, reducing the highway driving speed, and/or improving engine and drive train technologies.

Let's take a look at these options:

Build Smaller/Lighter Cars. The big automakers have tried and could make a lighter, smaller vehicle (remember the Pinto?), but Americans would have to give up their decadent desire for driving huge vehicles. As the Europeans have proven with the Mini Cooper and VW Bug, you can make fuel-efficient cars that people will actually want to buy.

Develop Alternative Fuels. Using more alternative fuel types like ethanol is very feasible, especially in a state like ours with large supplies of natural inputs for ethanol production. But we have to invest in the infrastructure and technology to produce the substance. The other problem is that most cars in the U.S. don't run on ethanol. Getting automakers and gas stations to cooperate will be a challenge unless and until it is mandated or makes economic sense for them.

Slow Down. We've tried reducing highway driving speeds, and it has helped but it is not the long-term solution, especially in a state like New Mexico with the fifth-largest land mass in the union. A leisurely six-hour drive to Las Cruces doesn't sound that appealing when you can make it in three if you drive 84 mph.

Innovate. Technological changes that improve efficiency are finally coming on line. Hybrid vehicles are a good example of how we can engineer our way to less oil consumption. However, neither Detroit nor Japan has built a hybrid that people buy out of sheer excitement, as opposed to guilt.

Unfortunately, although they make up the lion's share of crude oil use, cars are not the sole problem to our energy dilemma. Our entire economy is built upon petroleum-based products. Finding alternatives to petroleum for our factories, home energy needs and other uses will help us reduce our overall consumption. But whether it is changing how we think about our cars or how we power our homes, we have to change our behavior.

In the last chapter of the book, Tertzakian argues that in times of crisis like the current oil crunch, innovators and entrepreneurs thrive. Those who support and encourage innovation in energy production will be the winners in the next economy. So rather than crisis and calamity, the energy crisis can be viewed as an enormous opportunity for both our nation and our local community.

As a city, Albuquerque has a real opportunity to capitalize on this eminent sea change. Not only do we have one of the most progressive local renewable energy incentive programs in the country, but the State of New Mexico has one of the best sets of incentives for alternative energy, including the new solar energy tax credit passed in this year's Legislative Session. We have an ideal climate for solar energy production, and ample sources for biomass and ethanol production. Around the state we are on our way to being a major producer of wind energy. As the largest city in the state and the largest energy user, we can and should lead the nation in innovating a new alternative energy economy.

Until Detroit or foreign automakers start making affordable, aesthetically pleasing, alternative-powered vehicles with some guts, the reality is most Americans, and most Albuquerqueans, won't be willing to let go of their gas guzzlers. Giving city residents better alternatives to driving alone is another way we can lead. Instead of fighting HOV lanes, dedicated transit lanes and more investment in pedestrian-friendly development, we should take a hard look at how we can build energy-efficient infrastructure. What if the state and local government vehicle fleets switched to ethanol? How about making our new arena a model of energy efficiency with solar panels and other green building principles?

Like ending any addiction, we have to have the courage to change our behavior. Alternative fuels, solar and wind power go hand-in-hand with changing that behavior. Think of ethanol as the methadone of petroleum addiction. Solar panels as the nicotine patch of home energy. And wind turbines as the acupuncture of the power grid. Like it or not, for most of us, it's time for an intervention.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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