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October 06, 2010

How to Say Never Again

When the BP oil disaster was raging this summer, much of the country was engaged in a conversation about how we could prevent something like this from ever happening again.

If there were an easy answer to that question, we would have found it already. Oil drilling is inherently dangerous and dirty. As long as we keep drilling for oil, there's simply no way to guarantee against another disaster. Sure, we can reduce the odds -- the new drilling regulations announced by the Interior Department last week  might make another accident less likely, but they don't address the fundamental challenge: getting off oil as quickly as possible.

President Obama dedicated his first Oval Office address to make public his commitment to reduce America's oil dependence. He reiterated that commitment in his recent Rolling Stone interview and in his latest weekly address. The President can take credit for making several down payments on this pledge: enacting the first increases in vehicle efficiency in more than twenty years, announcing a rule-making process to regulate emissions from medium- and heavy-duty trucks, and beginning a process to set standards for cars manufactured in 2017-2025. He's justifiably proud of the effect that these will have, but he was also right when he said this: "Is it enough? Absolutely not."

That's just it: There's nothing wrong with making oil rigs safer or cars slightly more fuel-efficient. It's just not enough. Really solving the problem requires a deeper level of thinking about transportation in America.

Currently, more than seventy percent of the oil we consume goes into a transportation system that's been neglected for decades. Much of that oil is used in cars, trucks, and SUVs. We won't ever meet the challenge of breaking America's oil addiction as long as we're tinkering around with modest increases in fuel economy. We need to electrify transportation and put the internal combustion engine in our rearview mirror.

Furthermore, according to a new report from a bipartisan panel of experts, our entire transportation infrastructure will require major investment in the coming decades. If we don't -- our whole economy's at risk.

But let's not just reinvest -- let's also redefine. High-speed rail and other alternatives to cars and trucks demand the kind of forward-looking commitment in this country that they're already getting in China and Europe. This shouldn't be a partisan issue (which is what too many candidates for office this election are trying to make it) -- it should be a patriotic imperative.

At the same time, we need to find ways to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled and to prioritize transit-oriented development that doesn't promote single-driver long-distance commutes. Cities like Portland, Oregon, with its successful reintroduction of streetcars to revitalize its downtown and its first-in-the-nation bike-commuting stats, have already shown what can be done with the right planning and investment. Let's make it a national mandate.

Most of all, though, corporate and public policymakers need to "think different" about how we get from here to there. We have a choice. We can stick with the old ways and watch as the rest of the world waves goodbye from a bullet train. Or we can reinvent ourselves as a nation that won't be held hostage to gas spikes and gridlock.

If we want to avoid another oil disaster, it's an easy call.


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