11/04/2011 06:34 pm ET | Updated Jan 04, 2012

A Smart Way to Start Rebuilding America

Congress has repeatedly bogged down on efforts to keep funds flowing for America's transportation infrastructure. Instead of getting on with rebuilding America, Republicans in the Senate keep trying to eliminate funding for transportation alternatives like bikes and for pedestrian safety projects. Democrats have rebuffed them but, meanwhile, long-term transportation funding bills remain blocked because Republicans oppose efforts to fund them by narrowing tax breaks for millionaires. House Speaker John Boehner has proposed that we fund transportation by increasing domestic oil drilling, opening up areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to big oil.

It's vital to get the funding for a robust federal program to revive our decaying infrastructure. When Audi launches an advertising blitz for its A6 around the theme that America's roads and bridges are so bad that only the purchase of a high-tech, $40,000+ car enables you to survive driving them, you know the U.S. is in bad shape.

But there's no reason to tie this funding to the oil industry's desire to turn America's wilderness crown-jewels into oil fields. The few places not already open to oil drilling are off-limits for a reason -- they are more valuable as they are, either economically (the coastlines) or environmentally (the Arctic). And Big Oil already has access to most of our lands and waters.

Instead, why not get the money from the people who are profiting from the excess price of oil -- foreign oil producers? The U.S. president has the authority to limit oil imports if he finds they are a threat to America, which they undoubtedly are. Even George Bush said we were suffering from addiction to foreign oil. If President Obama gradually ramped down oil imports by, say, 5 percent a year (through either a tax or an imports limit with auctioned permits), four things would happen:

1. The Treasury would have a long-range revenue stream against which it could fund not only the infrastructure status quo but also a massive investment that would both make America competitive with China and Germany and jumpstart employment and business.

2. Reduced U.S. demand for imported oil would mean less ability for foreign oil producers to sustain high prices. The price of gasoline would go down and, in effect, foreign oil producers would pay for almost half of these new infrastructure investments. Why not tax foreign oil producers? After all, they're going to benefit if we have better roads.

3. Investors, seeing a clear path to a Beyond Oil future for the U.S., would rush to take electric vehicles, sustainable biofuels, and efficient trucks and planes to scale -- setting the stage for a new industrial revolution based on ending the petroleum era.

4. Domestic oil and gas producers would benefit. With less competition from foreign oil, they could produce more from the oil fields they have already developed -- without needing to sacrifice wilderness, coastal economies, or wildlife.

It's not widely understood, but a large part of the subsidies the U.S. currently provides to the oil industry don't even go to U.S. oil companies -- they go to the treasuries of countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. So a commonsense first step toward a long-term commitment to ending our dependence on imported oil would be to eliminate the estimated $10 billion a year in subsidies we're paying to oil and gas. That's not enough to pay for our infrastructure deficit, but anyone in Congress who can't vote for that much is saying, in effect, that they are in favor of indefinite foreign aid to the richest countries and the richest companies on earth.

How rich? The five biggest oil companies took in 70 percent more profit this fiscal quarter than they did during the same quarter in 2010, and their earnings for 2011 are projected to go up by 74 percent -- to $132 billion. There can't be many American taxpayers who are thrilled to be handing over $10 billion a year to the oil and gas industry.

The congressional "super committee" charged with considering what to do about the federal deficit is a logical place to look at sensible reform of oil industry subsidies. Yesterday, in light of exorbitant oil and gas industry profits, Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA), a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, joined other members of Congress, Oceana, and the Sierra Club in urging the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to end subsidies for the oil industry.

There really is no shortage of ways to fund our transportation infrastructure -- if the oil industry and foreign oil producers pay their fair share.