Over a Barrel of Oil

There is a singular moment in the novel Dune when Paul Atreides mounts and controls a sandworm, one of the enormous creatures that tunnel through the sand of the desert world Arrakis.  It is an image that has been repeated numerous times in novels and on film — perhaps notably in Avatar when Jake Sully successfully tames the enormous flying beast Toruk — and which has been used countless times before Dune as a defining symbol.  The outsider tames what only those who are members of an inner circle have any hope of controlling, and he thereby becomes part of the group, perhaps even its leader. 

Dune was published in 1965 at a time when nations were coming to a full understanding of the role that oil had taken in the world’s economies in the time since Henry Ford built the first gasoline-powered automobile in 1896.  In Dune, the economy of the entire galaxy is reliant on melange or “spice,” a substance whose existence is directly linked with the sandworms over which Paul achieves dominion.  Until Paul disrupts what has become the natural order of things, access to the spice is controlled by the Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles (“CHOAM”).  In an interview in 1980, the author Frank Herbert acknowledged that the spice was a metaphor for oil and that CHOAM was a metaphor for the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (“OPEC”), the cartel whose infamous imposition of oil embargoes during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 still echoes today. 

Limiting access to foreign sources of oil precipitated rationing measures in the United States as lines of cars snaked over streets waiting for access to gasoline pumps:  an extension of Daylight Savings Time, a ban on gasoline sales on Sundays, calls for homeowners to turn down their thermostats and for companies to trim their work hours.  The nation looked inwards, hating that it could be crippled by such foreign dependence.  Congress approved construction of the Trans-Alaskan oil pipeline, which was completed in 1977, the same year that the still-ongoing debate over whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge began. 

In 1975, Congress introduced the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (“CAFE”) standards as a measure to improve the average fuel economy of vehicles in the United States.  Between 1975 and 1988, the fuel economy of new cars and trucks inceased by 70%.  Since that time, there has been relative stagnation in fuel economy even as there have continued to be scientific and technological advances that allow its improvement.  Rather than increase the overall fuel economy of vehicles, the gains in efficiency extracting energy from gasoline have been used instead to produce larger and more powerful vehicles. 

That may be about to change. 

On May 21, 2010, President Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum calling for “steps [to] be taken to produce a new generation of clean vehicles.”  A copy of the memorandum can be found here.  Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) together responded to that memorandum by issuing a Notice of Intent to develop new standards for both greenhouse-gas emissions and fuel economy for light vehicles for the years 2017 – 2025.  The current standards that cover model years 2012 – 2016 require average emission levels to be less than 250 g of CO2 per mile with a fuel efficiency of 35.5 miles per gallon.  A copy of the Notice of Intent can be read here

The Notice provides an overview of standards that might be considered, considers the technologies that would be needed to meet those goals, and calls for feedback from the public.  The current deadline for public comment is the end of this month, with plans to issue a second notice on November 30 that includes an updated analysis of the potential efficiency targets. 

While no actual standards have yet been developed, the outline of possible standards in the Notice is informative, providing scenarios that range from a fuel efficiency of 47 mpg to as high as 62 mpg.  Already, some environmental groups have indicated an intention to press for the highest standards, but many think this is unrealistic in light of the realities of consumer demands for vehicle size and performance.  Nevertheless, the Governors of eight states have sent a letter to the President calling for standards of 60 mpg by 2025.  A copy the letter from the New York Governor can be read here

Putting increased pressure on vehicle manufacturers to meet higher fuel economy standards is generally welcome news, and the new standards could provide a measure of time in which those standards catch up with technical advances that have been made over the last fifteen years.  It is one part of what could be a comprehensive strategy to develop independence from foreign oil sources, a strategy that includes not only conservation efforts but also more aggressive pursuit of other sources of energy such as through nuclear power generation.  Despite efforts to avoid the consequences of a similar reduction in access to foreign oil since the embargo of 1973, U.S. reliance on imported petroleum has nonetheless increased since then so that 57% of the oil currently used in the United States is imported. 

It is unrealistic to expect draconian reductions in living standards to be readily accepted.  But at the same time, it is foolish not to be ambitious in insisting that we take advantage of technological developments that allow us to make the best use that we can of our resources.