Peak Oil Crisis: By Order of the Governor

Earlier this month, the Governor of Virginia issued what is sure to be one of many orders, laws and regulations mandating greater efficiency in the use of energy. Although justified in terms of saving taxpayer money, wise use of natural resources and reducing greenhouse gases, the order serves equally well as a preemptory strike against the consequences of peak oil.

The order directs all state government agencies and institutions to reduce energy expenditures by 20 percent from FY 2006 levels within three years. Energy saving devices that can recover acquisition costs within one year, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs, are to be installed immediately. All new and renovated buildings are to be constructed to modern energy-efficient standards. The roofs of all buildings over 5,000 square feet are to be periodically evaluated to see if the costs of installing photo-voltaic or other energy-collecting system will be paid back within 15 years.

All state-leased buildings shall be within one quarter mile of a public transit stop, where such transit is available. All agencies shall maximize the use of biofuels wherever reasonably possible.

All agencies and institutions are to minimize vehicle miles traveled related to state operations. All agencies and institutions are to implement transit and ridesharing incentive programs, and maximize the use of telecommuting.

Commonwealth agencies and institutions shall purchase or lease Energy Star rated appliances and equipment for all classifications for which an Energy Star designation is available. All new copiers, faxes, printers, and other such office equipment purchased or leased by the Commonwealth that uses paper shall be recycled paper-compatible. The Commonwealth shall purchase only recycled paper.

From the perspective of preparing for peak oil, all this sounds great. At the stroke of a pen, the Governor has made a great start. But the writ only extends as far as the extent of the governor’s powers.

As the executive order says, “By the power vested in me by Article V of the Constitution of Virginia, and Section 2.2-103 of the Code of Virginia, and subject always to my continuing and ultimate authority and responsibility to act in such matters, I hereby direct the Governor’s Secretaries and all executive branch agencies and institutions to reduce energy consumption.”

As it stands, the order does not apply to local governments, business, or individuals. To mandate similar energy conservation measures on these folks would require either state or federal legislation, or possibly changes to the state and federal constitutions. Such is democracy and the right to waste as much as you can afford.

Many recent efforts to mandate more efficient use of our natural resources have run into trouble. The current American system of legislating is monitored by legions of lobbyists all dedicated to maintaining or enhancing their clients’ piece of the great economic pie. Except for non-profits, there rarely is a thought about the common good. Try to save electricity and the electric companies lobbyist will be all over you. Try to save gasoline and you hear from the oil lobbyists. Smaller or cleaner cars? Detroit will grind you into the ground!

My favorite example occurred last winter during an effort to pass a “renewable portfolio standards” bill which is a fancy way of saying the utilities must use at least a smidgeon of renewable fuel to generate electricity. At the last minute, the lobbyists for, of all people, the furniture makers showed up to do battle against renewable energy on the grounds that the big, rich utilities would buy up all the wood to feed their boilers and there would be none left to make furniture.

Such fears are typical of what we will soon be facing as the consequences of peak oil settle into the economy. Many new forms of economic relationships will have to be established as oil and its products become simply too scarce and expensive to be used as it is currently. Some will win and some will lose in the great upheavals ahead.

Until very recently governments have been stymied in efforts to mandate more efficient use of energy. One need look no further than automobile efficiency standards to appreciate that, for decades, the majority of people saw no pressing need for them. The same could have been said for carbon emissions.

Another classic case was closing outdated military bases. This was an intractable political problem until they came up with the idea of having an independent commission make the decisions that congressmen, for a variety of reasons, couldn’t.

All this leads back to the manifold decisions that will soon be needed to cope with diminishing oil supplies. Take the simple case of cutting and draconically enforcing speed limits which would quickly and inexpensively save major quantities of gasoline each day. Thirty years ago this was easy to impose because there were shortages and long lines at the gas pumps. People quickly perceived that slowing down would reduce the hours they would have to spend sitting in gas lines and quickly acquiesced in the new limits.

But without the gas lines, it would take an incredibly brave member of Congress to introduce a bill reducing the national speed limit to 55 mph again no matter how much sense it might make.

All this is saying that we are really going to have to hurt badly before a consensus will form around decisive action that will upset the status quo. The pundits are fond of pointing out that gasoline prices in the US will have to go beyond $6 a gallon before gasoline is consuming a bigger share of the of the family budget than it was during the energy crises of the 1970’s.

If it takes $6 gasoline to forge a consensus for decisive action, then so be it. It may take more. It may take less. I suspect we will find out before too many months have passed. When the consensus forms, Congress and legislature will pass sweeping bills mandating all sorts of changes in the way we use energy. Maybe even for the common good.