By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) last week released A 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use.
Many of the steps seem to be no more than common sense – and would not prove unduly difficult to implement. And Asian and European countries are expected to follow at least some of these recommendations.
Alas, the U.S. is not expected to comply with any provisions.
Now, to be sure, skyrocketing oil and gasoline prices may independently cause U.S. households to curb fossil fuel fuel their consumption. Many can’t afford to do otherwise.
The IEA, founded in 1974 by seventeen countries – mainly from Europe, but also including Japan and the United States – was intended to counteract the activities of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Counties (OPEC). The IEA now has thirty-one members, and as Motherboard reports , has “the goal of “cooperation on a variety of issues” relating to energy supply including a “collective emergency response mechanism” that ensures a “stabilizing influence” during times of energy crises.”
The report addresses some cursory measures to increase supply – which I won’t address in this post. Instead, I’ll consider the measures the IEA has put forward to reduce demand for oil. Per the IEA report:
Another way to help balance the market and reduce the pain caused by high oil prices is to bring down demand. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the IEA’s March Oil Market Report lowered its forecast for global oil demand in 2022 by 950 thousand barrels a day (kb/d) because of the expected impacts of higher prices and weaker GDP growth. But this would still leave the oil market very tight, with upward pressure on prices likely to remain in an uncertain geopolitical environment.
Further reductions in demand are possible in the near term, however, through actions by governments and citizens. The world’s advanced economies together account for around 45% of global oil demand, and most of them are members of the IEA. Demand restraint (see annex) is one of the emergency response measures that all IEA member countries are required to have ready as a contingency at all times – and that they can use to contribute to an IEA collective action in the event of an emergency.
In view of this and the potential emergency the world is facing, the IEA is proposing 10 immediate actions that can be taken in advanced economies to reduce oil demand before the peak demand season. We estimate that the full implementation of these measures in advanced economies alone can cut oil demand by 2.7 million barrels a day within the next four months, relative to current levels.1 The analysis in this report focuses on the potential effect of these measures in advanced economies, but their adoption in more countries would further increase their impact. Ensuring local and regional coordination of their implementation would maximise the impact. [IEA Report, pp. 5-6].
IEA’s 10-Point Plan
The majority of oil demand is in transport, so the IEA’s 10-point plan focuses accordingly:
Source: International Energy Agency, A 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use.
Jerri-Lynn here. Note that pp. 7-13 of the report includes further discussion of each measure.
Even absent the worldwide oil supply crunch caused by the war in Ukraine and exacerbated by the West’s decision to impose sanctions on Russia, many European cities had already taken considerable steps to encourage people to cut back or eliminate their reliance on private cars. These cities have made their centers car-free (or at least, drastically reduce private use of such vehicles).. Unfortunately, the U.S. lags signficantly in this regard.
The Biden administration isn’t renowned for its political courage. I mean, look at what a muddle Joe & Co. have made over mask mandates – acquiescing in their opponents’ framing of mask use as signifying a ‘scarlet letter’. I thought the vaunted return of the adults in the room meant the U.S. would again instead endorse long-established public health practice. Such as embracing one measure long known to curb the spread of infectious diseases (and not just COVID-19).
So, especially with the political blowback I foresee from high and increasing fuel prices – with no end in sight – I think this administration is unlikely to chance asking the public to take additional steps to their curb fossil fuel use – no matter how sensible they are. The last time a Democratic political leader tried that shtick was during the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter appeared in his cardigan and asked his fellow Americans to turn down the thermostat. And we all know how well that plan turned out. (Not that it wasn’t a good plan – but it’s widely regarded by the likes of Joe & Co. as having been a mistake.)
As to the specifics, reducing speed limits is a non-starter. Especially in Western states, where the roads are straight and distances vast. How about car-free Sundays? I think even in NYC, such a measure wouldn’t be attempted, as it would be seen to be politically unpopular. The challenge would be to convince city residents how pleasant it is to be able to stroll around car-free city centers without having to worry about being clocked by a car – as is the case in many European city centers. Ditto other restrictions on private car use – alternative day use based on license plate numbers. Maybe some incentives might be attempted to encourage more carpooling – but those would likely be means-tested to the point of impracticality.
As for high-speed and night train use in preference to airplanes, well, that’s a good idea. But with what high speed train network? Oh, right, there is none. Minimal night train services were limping along the last time I had a chance to use them, during the late summer of 2019 (see Take the (Night) Train Redux). I think the pandemic has probably hollowed out what were even then pretty minimal Amtrak services. So, as business travel revives – and maybe expands – business travellers must choose between cars and ‘planes as the only viable means to get from here to there. Better train service, high speed or otherwise, remains a fantasy.
Cutting public transit fares? Again, a great idea. And I’ve said so as long ago as the 1980s, when the then-head of the Greater London Council (GLC), Ken Livingstone, proposed doing so in London. And then the Thatcher government abolished the GLC.
As for the U.S., pursuing such a course of unlikely as long as city transportation authorities are in thrall to neo-liberal principles, with their ambits narrowly-drawn and their books made to ‘balance’ (within certain parameters).
And finally, the tenth proposal: encourage the use of electric cars and more fuel efficient vehicles. Well, to some extent, Democratic administrations have pursued weak versions of such policies. But not to anywhere near the degree necessary. One obstacle: in many parts of the country, there’s been little build-out of charging infrastructure. It’s hard to use the EV if you can’t easily juice it up. Another problem, assuming people got religion, jettisoned the pickup or SUV, and immediately had means to rush out and purchase an EV or more fuel-efficient car. Where are these new vehicles expected to come from? Cars and other passenger vehicles are already in short supply, with supply chains for crucial components – e.g., computer chips – snarled.
Here, I also wish to direct readers to a recent DeSmogBlog piece documenting how the lobbying muscle of auto and fossil fuel interests helped us get from Jimmy Carter’s cardigans to our current reality – where many Americans drive massive vehicles, which get terrible gas mileage (see Decades of Lobbying Weakened Americans’ Gas Mileage and Turbocharged Pain at the Pump).
As Motherboard summarizes, the last decades have seen federal and state officials promoting demand for gasoline rather than encouraging us to spare its use:
Instead, the far more common—and in some cases implemented—initiatives have been to increase consumer demand instead by way of gas tax holidays. This reflects the fact that the U.S. has spent the better part of the last 70 years ensuring nearly every American family needs multiple vehicles in order to live productive, fruitful lives, and underfunding any and all alternatives to that lifestyle. For the vast majority of U.S. residents, there is no Plan B, no matter how high gas prices get.
Will the response to the latest round of gas price hikes lead this time to an appreciably different result? I’m not sure I’d bet on that, even though the health of the planet sure would benefit from such a long overdue shift.
I am nonetheless pleased to see the IEA produce this report. Other countries might use it as a basis to curb their oil consumption. And as for those of us who live in the United States: maybe some political leaders might step up and explain what now must be done. Better too late – far, far, too late – than never.