Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.
— U.S. Secretary of Energy-designate Steven Chu, 2008
Of course we don’t want the price of gasoline to go up, we want it to go down.
— U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, 2012
Gas prices are on the rise again, which means the “man on the street” will complain to local news reporters about greedy oil companies and foreign cartels, and energy-illiterate pundits and politicians will cry for domestic drilling with wild abandon.
But is gasoline, now approaching $4 per gallon in Ohio, really expensive?
Consider that a barrel of West Texas Intermediate crude oil, trading for around $100 per barrel in March 2012, is equivalent to 10,000 hours of human labor. The work of one person over their lifetime (about 45 years of manual labor) can be done by just four barrels of oil, which costs $400 today. That’s not a bad deal compared to the annual salary, healthcare costs and pension that an employee would receive over 45 years.
Gasoline—and all our fossil energy—has been absurdly cheap over the last two centuries. Even today, fossil fuels are relatively inexpensive for the power they deliver to consumers, companies and governments. Oil’s cheapness has given us economic growth, industrialization and consumerism. And it’s also given us overpopulation, overconsumption, toxic pollution, the depletion of soil, water and rare earth metals, and habitat destruction and its corollary, species extinction.
Solutions that make petroleum less expensive not only make that long list of consequences worse, they delay our inevitable transition away from finite, fast-depleting underground fuels. If we delay the transition, then we will have a larger, more developed global population that’s used to a high-energy lifestyle by the time the shortages hit and rationing kicks in. In short, low oil prices now mean more people, corporations and nations fighting over fewer resources later.
So why don’t politicians call for more expensive energy to curtail use? That would be a more rational response for a world on the brink of energy scarcity. If households find out their income source would soon be drastically reduced, wouldn’t it make sense if they stopped their spending spree and started to save?
Instead, we drain our bank account of accumulated fossil capital at ever-faster rates. Between 2001 and 2011, the world consumed about 260 billion barrels of crude oil. That amount represents about 20 percent of all crude oil ever consumed. Demand and population, especially in China and India, are growing exponentially. If China and India’s oil consumption continues at present rates, they would gobble up all of the available net exports of oil in the world in just 19 years, leaving none for any other importing country, according to petroleum geologist Jeffrey Brown.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu added an enlightened sentiment to the energy conversation in 2008 when he suggested that the U.S. should try to increase gasoline prices to the level in most European nations, which is roughly double that of the U.S. In January 2012, a German motorist paid an average $8.19 per gallon to fill up, compared to the $3.58 per gallon paid at an American pump, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Chu’s announced goal in 2008 was right on target. With much higher domestic prices, solutions like use of mass transit, smaller vehicles and smart growth happen naturally. America would be less dependent upon oil because new housing construction would take place within walking distance of shops and workplaces. New passenger rail lines would connect distant destinations. Wind, solar and other sources of renewable energy would get a boost. Relocation of agricultural production in and near cities would save energy and money and improve food security. Thus, when an even more serious oil crunch comes, American households and communities would be better adapted to survive as fuel costs would be a smaller percentage of total living expenses.
But Chu recently told reporters that he changed his mind since 2008 and that he has actually worked over the last three years to reduce oil prices. This may be political maneuvering ahead of the November presidential election. Or it may be that Chu thinks Americans are too dumb to understand that in the long run they would be better off with higher fuel prices.
It would be refreshing if a few politicians and pundits talked about (without retraction) how high oil prices would secure America’s fossil fuel-free future, and if at least a few Americans told the media how happy high prices made them for the sake of their country.
Last year oil companies cried that ending their government subsidies was un-American and would raise gasoline prices. The truth is that more expensive gasoline would encourage positive changes in the U.S. economy making Americans more self-reliant, less vulnerable to oil price shocks and shortages and more resilient in the face of future economic downturns or Middle East turmoil. That sounds pretty American to me.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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