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Fueling Our Foreign Oil Addiction

Stuck in the Sand: Fueling Our Foreign Oil Addiction

August 31, 2005

The results presented here are largely a measure of metro area oil dependence, which in turn translates into foreign oil dependence, a portion of which is sent directly to Middle Eastern states. Transportation and growth policies of the last half century are the root cause of this insatiable oil appetite, which has surged to levels far beyond those that can be met with domestic supplies.

Middle East oil dependence has increased steadily over the past 20 years as highways have energized sprawling development, created longer commutes, and ultimately lead to more time spent stuck in traffic in just about every American community. According to the Texas Transportation InstituteÕs 2005 Urban Mobility Report, congestion grew more severe and longer in duration in urban areas of every size between 1982 and 2003 (TTI 2005).

While at first glance, these problems might appear to be the result of simple population growth, a closer look reveals that transportation and land use policies are largely to blame. Between 1982 and 1997, the amount of urbanized land in the United States grew from 51 million acres to about 76 million acres, an increase of 47 percent. Meanwhile, the number of vehicle miles traveled increased by 55 percent. Yet over the same time period, the population grew by only 17 percent (Fulton et al. 2001, ALBD 2005). From 1960 to 1990, the percentage of workers with jobs outside their county of residence grew three-fold while the percentage of workers working in the county where they lived declined (ALBD 2005). What these figures indicate is that our roads are filling up because people are driving more as a result of development and transportation policies that leave huge distances between destinations and give people no alternative but to get behind the wheel.

Building more roads has not made daily transportation better and, in fact, may have contributed to congestion while locking us into even greater Middle East oil dependency. Smart Growth America reported that Òcommunities that have built the most roads have had no more success in keeping congestion in check than areas that have not added much road capacity." (SGA 2005).

As a result of our development and transportation policies, foreign oil dependence has soared. In 2004, foreign sources accounted for a record 58 percent of total petroleum consumption (EIA Petroleum Trade 2005). As American drivers demand more and more oil, the federal government has granted oil and gas companies access to massive amounts of public lands in western states — some 229 million acres of public land, an area greater than Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona combined, according to an EWG analysis. Despite this access, public lands in the lower 48 states produced just 53 days of oil consumption between 1989 and 2003 (BLM 2004, MMS 2004).

America cannot drill its way to energy independence. In fact, the U.S. lacks the oil to come anywhere near to reducing dependence on Middle East sources, no matter how many of America's prized natural treasures are opened to destructive drilling. Even the much-touted Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not a panacea. The best government estimates are that the Arctic Wildlife Refuge contains about a year of recoverable oil at current consumption rates (USGS Arctic 1998).

Gulf nations control two-thirds of the world's oil reserves and would continue to influence prices even if the U.S. obtained its oil elsewhere (Financial Times 2005, EIA Primer on Gasoline 2005, PBS 1996). But the goal of independence from Middle East oil is still well worth pursuing, both on its merits and for its motivational power for the American people.

The Middle East is an extremely volatile region of the world. Disruptions to the world oil supply, such as a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, could push gasoline prices even higher than they are now (Bunch 2005, Kher 2005). In the case of a disruption, or even a continued steady rise in prices, people in the most gasoline-dependent metro areas would suffer the most, as price increases would be hardest to absorb.

In addition, efforts to reduce dependence on Middle East oil through smart transportation investments will create jobs at home that will make the U.S. economy more resistant to oil price surges. By investing anew in a diversified, transit-reinforced transportation system, we can build a U.S. economy that grants more time and opens more options for diplomatic engagement when oil-related Middle East crises flare.