Seattle activists’ spirited campaign to stop Shell from exploratory drilling in the Arctic is grabbing world headlines and focusing attention on the climate impacts of exploiting the Arctic’s enormous petroleum resources. Opponents of Arctic drilling cite sound science projecting that the exploitation of Arctic oil will push global temperatures well over the 2o C threshold for a livable planet.
Shell defends its drilling in the Arctic as necessary to meet growing demand for gasoline. And demand for gasoline is growing. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, Americans used, on average, 375 million gallons of gasoline every day in 2014, and are projected to use even more in 2015, despite a more fuel efficient fleet of cars and a much better selection of electric cars. In 2013, Americans used more petroleum than China, India, France, and Germany combined.
The consumption of gasoline is ultimately financing the exploration and drilling for oil. Without the steady cash flow provided by growing consumption of gasoline, enormously capital-intensive projects such as Arctic oil exploration would become financially untenable and grind to a halt.
The reduction of oil consumption scarcely registers for climate activists. Other than supporting politically unfeasible carbon taxes, the environmental community has essentially no program to reduce gasoline consumption, the real driver behind the quest for more oil production.
What would a program to reduce gasoline consumption look like, especially if carbon taxes are, for now, off the table?
First, a broad-based campaign to educate consumers about the enormous amount of carbon pollution that they generate when they use their cars, and to encourage them to take responsibility for substantial reduction of their emissions. Few consumers know, for example, that they emit about 20 pounds of CO2 with every gallon of gasoline they consume. Few feel they have any responsibility to reduce their emissions beyond purchasing a car attaining “reasonable” (20+ MPG) gas mileage.
In fact, U.S. consumers of gasoline have barely scratched the surface of possible actions to reduce emissions. For example, electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles now offer excellent alternatives to gas vehicles, but still garner less than 0.5% of total vehicle sales in the U.S. The 5-passenger 2016 Chevy Volt, for example, offers 50 mile electric range, backed up by a gasoline-powered engine offering essentially unlimited range, at prices comparable with similar gas-powered vehicles, especially after fuel savings are considered. A small 3kW solar panel setup on a homeowner’s roof more than sufficient to power an electric car for 30 years costs less than $10,000. Other underexploited means of radically reducing emissions include using mass transit, carpooling, and bicycling.
By taking actions such as shifting to electric cars, and using more mass transit, the U.S. can reduce its demand for gasoline, and consequent CO2 emissions, by more than 50% over the next 10 years. If we achieve major reductions in gasoline consumption, oil drilling in the Arctic, tar sands drilling, and other expensive and environmentally hazardous areas will stop. If we continue heedlessly consuming gasoline, we can be sure that drilling in the Arctic, and everyplace else, will continue unabated, despite the best efforts of kayaktivists and others to block them.