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Kate Gordon

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True Freedom Means Ending the Oil Monopoly

Posted: 07/31/2013 5:48 pm

I'm obsessed this week with the issue of distribution. Distributed energy is not a new concept in the electricity sector: small-scale solar systems on rooftops and in parking lots are becoming such a part of the landscape that the utility sector is in a panic, trying to roll back incentives for these projects all across the country. (They're not succeeding: our sister organization AEE and other key state groups have managed to protect a groundbreaking community solar program in Minnesota from attack, along with over 50 other important state advanced energy laws and regulations.)

But what about distributed fuel? In all the excitement over new renewable and efficient energy solutions, we sometimes forget a key fact: a huge chunk of U.S. carbon emissions come from the transportation sector, and that sector is under monopoly control. In California, 96 percent of transportation fuels come from petroleum. This lack of fuel choice is problematic for obvious reasons. It makes consumers vulnerable to volatile and often increasing prices; the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that California consumers have experienced at least 30 gasoline price spikes since 2006. It limits our ability to act, both as individuals, and collectively, to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Anna Rath and Adam Monroe put it best in their column in The Hill this week, asking this simple question: "There is just one fundamental choice at the heart of the debate: do we want alternatives to oil, or not?"

We do. But how do we get there? This week in Washington, battles are raging against the national Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS). It looks like opponents of the law don't have enough votes to kill it, but the debate over the law has raised important questions about exactly how to achieve more fuel diversity in this country. The RFS was written in 2005; California's Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) was signed into law not long after, in 2007. At the time, biofuels looked like the best available alternative to oil. Even the oil companies were investing in alternatives to crude oil (remember BP's $500 million investment in UC Berkeley's biofuel research center in 2007?).

But then came the huge unconventional shale oil boom and those companies pulled back, and in fact are some of the major opponents to the RFS and LCFS today. These companies don't want to invest in alternative clean fuels; they want to take new dirty fuels to market, via Keystone XL for example.

If we want to push back against the oil companies, on the RFS, LCSF, or Keystone fight, we need to weaken their power over us. That means we need to need them less. One way to break their hold? Forget about liquid fuels and use electrons instead! Electric cars are the good news story this week: BMW just released a new spiffy model; Tesla joined the Nasdaq 100, and Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt sales are way up this summer.

The more electric cars, the bigger percent of our transportation emissions move over to the electricity sector, a place where we already have impressive energy diversity and distribution. See the beginning of this post.

Why am I nattering on about all this? Because it's time we take distributed fuel as seriously as we take distributed electricity. The RFS and LCFS are critical policies to get us out of our petroleum comfort zone and move toward greater, more sustainable fuel choices. We need to protect those policies but also think beyond them.

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