Catalyst Spring 2013

Let's Cut Oil Use Now

By Matt Heid

UCS has a practical, realistic plan to protect consumers, communities, and our nation from the growing costs of our oil use. It all comes down to one simple fact: we need to use less oil.

Our Half the Oil plan outlines a suite of oil-saving solutions that scientists and engineers have already developed and are improving every day. Among them are technologies that make cars and trucks more efficient, hybrid and electric vehicles more practical, and vehicle fuels less polluting.

David Friedman, senior engineer and deputy director of the UCS Clean Vehicles Program, knows from firsthand experience that these changes are possible. In many ways, the Half the Oil plan began with a historic success more than six years ago—one he and UCS helped secure.

A Step in the Right Direction

In May 2007, in a brightly lit room near the U.S. Capitol, David faced some of the most powerful policy makers in the country: members of the Senate Commerce Committee conducting a hearing on proposed standards that would increase vehicle fuel economy. And they wanted to hear what David had to say. His response was clear: We already have the technologies to make our cars and trucks go dramatically farther on a gallon of gas, which would significantly reduce U.S. oil use, save consumers billions at the pump, and lower global warming pollution (oil and other petroleum products are the United States’ largest source of heat-trapping emissions).

Representatives of the auto industry who were sitting next to David tried to convince the senators otherwise. As he recalls, “They weren’t telling the truth about the potential of their companies to make their cars better. I realized I had to call them out.” So he did, and Congress listened. Later that year, it raised fuel economy standards for the first time in three decades, requiring that new cars and light trucks achieve an average of 35 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2020.

How We Get All the Way There

“That victory was a first step,” David says, “but to effectively address global warming we need to achieve even greater savings in the years to come. What’s really inspiring, though, is that there are so many more opportunities to cut our oil use.” That insight led David and other UCS experts to undertake a broader analysis of oil-saving solutions that could realistically be implemented over the next two decades.

UCS found that cutting projected U.S. oil use in half will require saving 11 million barrels per day by 2035 compared with a future in which America does nothing to reduce its oil use. While about one-third of these savings can come from homes, businesses, and additional transportation options (see the sidebar), the majority would result from advancements in vehicles and fuels, including:

Increased adoption of electric vehicles could reduce U.S. oil consumption as much as 1.5 million barrels per day by 2035.

(Further) improving vehicle fuel economy.Even after the 2007 standards were finalized, David explains, “The science showed that cars could do even better.” So UCS worked with the Obama administration, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency to help shape new standards, finalized last year, that require automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and light trucks sold in 2025. About a third of our needed oil savings will be accomplished as a result.

The same technologies used to improve car and light-truck fuel economy—such as more efficient engine designs, stronger but lighter materials, and hybrid-electric power trains—can also be applied to other vehicle fleets. Consider commercial vehicles such as big rigs, delivery trucks, and buses, which comprise only 4 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet yet consume 20 percent of our fuel. Doubling their fuel efficiency by 2030 would save 1 million barrels per day by 2035. Increasing the efficiency of planes, trains, and ships would save an additional half-million barrels per day.

Expanding the electric vehicle (EV) market. By using virtually no oil at all, EVs offer tremendous potential to help achieve the Half the Oil plan. If steady market growth leads to between 35 and 40 percent of all new vehicles sold in 2035 running almost entirely on battery power or hydrogen fuel cells, the resulting oil savings would total 1.5 million barrels per day.

Smart planning can make it easier for people to get around without a car.

Saving Oil When We’re Not Driving

Our plan identifies smarter ways to do business, stay warm, and get around town..

We typically associate oil use with cars and trucks, but some 25 percent of the oil we use goes toward making goods, powering industries, and providing heat to homes and businesses (nearly 7 million households—mostly in the Northeast—use oil for heat). By retrofitting buildings to use less energy, making boilers more efficient, recycling oil and plastics, and adopting substitutes for oil to heat our homes and manufacture goods, we could reduce oil consumption by around 2 million barrels per day. Many homeowners and industries have voluntarily moved in this direction in the face of rising energy costs, but energy efficiency standards, tax incentives, and funding for oil alternatives would help get us where we need to go.

Another important oil-saving strategy is to better integrate transportation options with the places where we live and work. For example, improving public transit systems and increasing mixed-use development would reduce the need to get behind the wheel for daily commuting or errands. And smart road design would allow bicycles and pedestrians to better share the road with cars and trucks. These and related strategies could yield oil savings of nearly 1.5 million barrels of oil per day by 2035.

EVs currently make up less than 1 percent of new vehicles sold each year, but that number is likely to change quickly—sales of EVs tripled in 2012, outpacing the adoption rate of hybrid-electric cars in their first few years on the market. “Over time, if we invest in innovation and increase the number of electric cars on the road, the cost of EVs will go down, their performance and range will steadily increase, and we’ll see them as another good option for going about our daily lives,” David says.

Developing better, cleaner biofuels.Corn ethanol and other food-based biofuels put pressure on food supplies and, because their production uses large amounts of land and fossil fuels, do little to reduce global warming emissions. However, cellulosic biofuels (so named for the sugars in plant cell walls) largely avoid these problems because they can be made from perennial grasses, agricultural residues left behind after harvesting, and even garbage.

Production of cellulosic biofuels—if done in a sustainable way—has the potential to displace enough gasoline to save more than 1.5 million barrels of oil per day by 2035. A small but growing number of U.S. facilities are already producing these fuels; policies that support greater investment in large-scale commercial production are needed.

Building the Political Will

Developing a plan to cut oil use is one thing. Making it a reality is another thing entirely. “I realized early on that there is a massive gap between what policy makers thought was possible, and what scientists and engineers were saying could and should be done,” David notes. “If we want to make progress, it’s essential that we bridge that gap.” And that is what UCS, together with its thousands of members and supporters, is working toward every day.

Implementing practical, realistic solutions like the Half the Oil plan is essential to creating a healthier, safer, and more sustainable future, but it won’t be easy. “We’ve got to be real,” David says. “The political will is lacking for a reason. There’s a huge industry out there that’s making a lot of money selling us oil—and it is going to actively fight any attempts to reduce demand for its product. But the costs of our oil use—from high gas prices and pollution to the growing dangers of global warming—are simply too great to continue on our present path.”

Fortunately, as David demonstrated in Washington, DC, six years ago, resistance can be overcome. UCS will continue to push for the many economic, security, environmental, and public health benefits of our Half the Oil plan while we fight the oil industry’s efforts to block progress. With a national commitment to reducing oil use, we could be well on our way to a cleaner, lower-carbon energy future.

UCS Web Content Manager Matt Heid writes on climate, energy, and transportation issues.


Learn more about our oil savings plan and what you can do to be a part of the solution.