Energy efficiency is the best path.

By DAVID CARGO, former Governor of New Mexico and a member of REP’s New Mexico Chapter

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This op-ed was published in the Albuquerque Journal on April 17, 2003.


Opening pristine wildlands in Alaska and the West to oil drilling will do little to curb America’s dangerously large appetite for foreign petroleum.

Yet the administration and significant numbers of congressmen keep trotting out a tiresome line: If only greenies would stand aside, drilling rigs in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Mountain West would shield the United States from the machinations of foreign petro-predators.

Both the House and Senate are moving energy bills that would rush permitting for energy development on Western public lands. A House bill also would open the Arctic refuge to drilling, a provision which could end up in compromise legislation the two chambers negotiate later this spring.

But no matter how often politicians claim that the road to energy security lies in America’s pristine wildlands, Washington rhetoric cannot trump geological facts.

America has only 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. Opening the Arctic refuge would reduce foreign demand a mere 2 percent points by 2020, according to Department of Energy estimates. Opening all onshore federal lands outside the Arctic — including national monuments and roadless areas inside national forests — would replace only one year’s worth of oil imports at today’s consumption levels.

Political rhetoric about environmental obstructionists aside, most of the oil and gas beneath Western public lands is already available for leasing.

A recent federal study of five geological basins in five mountain states found that only 16 percent of the estimated 3.9 billion barrels of oil and 12 percent of the 138 trillion cubic feet of gas they hold is beneath lands that are closed to production. The numbers apparently discomfited rush-to-drill senators, who ordered up energy bill language directing the U.S. Geological Survey to do another study.

Such political capers will not repeal an unavoidable truth — America will never disentangle itself from the foreign-oil tar baby until Washington starts getting more serious about energy efficiency. Without strong action to root out energy waste, U.S. dependence on foreign oil is expected to rise from nearly 60 percent of consumption today to 70 percent by 2020.

Energy bills moving forward in the House and Senate contain a number of necessary provisions, including incentives for buying super-efficient motor vehicles and energy saving home improvements, along with research funding for advanced energy technologies.

But Congress stubbornly resists the single most effective policy that would begin freeing America from foreign oil and its never-ending potential for conflict — higher fuel efficiency standards that would force automakers to build vehicles that deliver more value for each gallon of gas they burn. A modest efficiency increase of 5 miles per gallon would save 1 million barrels of oil per day by 2010, nearly 10 percent of current imports.

Fuel efficiency standards deliver proven results. Standards in place today save 2.8 million barrels per day, equivalent to 14 percent of current consumption. Greater fuel efficiency is the bridge that will buy time for long-term technologies that can start cutting America loose permanently from dangerous foreign oil dependence 20 or so years from now.

In the short term, technologies are on the shelf right now that could significantly boost fuel efficiency in cars and SUVs. Next year, Ford plans to market a hybrid-electric SUV that will get nearly 30 miles per gallon on the highway and 40 mpg in city driving. Even as simple a measure as efficiency standards for replacement tires could reduce gasoline consumption by 3 percent.

Tougher fuel efficiency standards would speed up the use of hybrids and other fuel-saving technologies in vehicles that are safe, desirable and affordable.

In addition to boosting security, ramping down oil consumption would deliver other benefits, including lower fuel costs, reduced pollution and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy efficiency must be the foundation of a balanced energy policy that delivers the most value for our economy, security and environment.

Too often, Washington’s political debates over energy take an “either-or” cast that leaves citizens with the fictional impression that environmental values must be sacrificed to secure the energy our country needs. It is long past time to get past the false dichotomies.

Americans don’t need to sacrifice the beautiful canyons, forests and rivers of our heritage Western lands to keep America rolling. If we’re both smart and wise, we can have adequate, reliable supplies of energy, secure our nation from unwanted foreign entanglements, and protect the outdoor treasures that are lasting symbols of our great nation.

David Cargo, an enthusiastic member of the New Mexico Chapter of REP from 1997 until his death in 2013, served as governor of New Mexico from 1967 to 1971.

Here’s a related op-ed by Governor Cargo : Energy Bill Bust