Environmental Law and Policy Center's Learner urges lawmakers to move transportation policy to reduce emissions

What impact do low oil prices have on efforts to reduce emissions in the transportation sector? During today's OnPoint, Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, discusses the intersection of transportation and climate policies and talks about efforts in the Midwest to broaden the reach of plug-in electric vehicles and expand high-speed rail access.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Howard, thanks for coming back on the show.

Howard Learner: Good to join you.

Monica Trauzzi: Howard, there're some interesting things happening across the U.S. on transportation policy as the country moves towards a more carbon-constrained future. What type of policy action do we see in the Midwest that is acknowledging the significance of the transportation sector in reducing emissions?

Howard Learner: What we're seeing is a quiet revolution in the transportation sector with car and truck technologies improving, better miles per gallon, less carbon pollution. People are driving less. They're using other options. They're going on public transit. They're taking higher-speed rail. Amtrak's ridership has hit record levels in the Midwest. All that reduces carbon pollution. If we're serious about reducing carbon pollution, we have to find ways to do something in the transportation sector, which accounts for about a third the overall carbon pollution in our country. The good news is we can do it in ways that are good for our economy, good for job creation, make us less dependent on foreign oil and help reduce our carbon pollution. If people either drive less or use more efficient, cleaner cars and trucks, they save money at the gas pump and they spend that money in our local economy. That's a winner.

Monica Trauzzi: Tax policy is probably one of the most difficult issues to move here in Washington. Can it be used effectively to bridge transportation and climate policies?

Howard Learner: Tax policy -- everybody would like to change the tax code, and there's one way that they think makes absolute sense, and all they have to do is have Congress just do that one little change. We know how hard that is to do, but there're things that can and should be done, particularly as the transportation bill comes up hopefully in the next session. Both sides of the aisle have indicated they want the transportation authorization bill or reauthorization bill to move forward, and that's the opportunity to really decide what do we invest in. What're the tax policies that should go with it? What's the allocation between fixing it first? We have a lot of highways and bridges in the Midwest and nationally that need to be repaired and need to be fixed. Fix it first is a good policy for us both on the tax side through infrastructure funding and through the reauthorization side through overall funding.

Then you've seen the president's initiative on higher-speed rail is really starting to work. Chicago-Detroit, Chicago-St. Louis, within a year and a half we'll have modern, new locomotives, modern, new passenger railcars on the track going 110 miles an hour in about 75 to 80 percent of the quarter. That's why ridership's going up. Modern, fast, comfortable, convenient bring to the Midwest what's been happening on the East Coast for a while. You put that together, you have a very different transportation system, one that improves mobility and reduces pollution, while keeping dollars in the local economy.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's stay on high-speed rail. What're the environmental benefits to the Midwest high-speed rail network?

Howard Learner: First of all, it improves mobility. Let's face it. These days air service is getting spotty in some places. I live in Chicago. O'Hare's an airport, lots of flights to lots of places, but if you're in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, and there're a million people that live within a 50-mile radius, with all the airline mergers and consolidations there's some air service today, but tomorrow who knows what will happen? What happens in places like Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, Michigan; Battle Creek, Michigan; Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, is that higher-speed rail hard-wires. It puts a transportation corridor between the good-size mid-cities and the major cities of the Midwest. That's good for giving people more options. It's good for reducing pollution. It improves mobility, and it helps local economy. The rail station in Bloomington-Normal has been the focal point of redevelopment in that city. There's a lot of private investment coming in. That's a winner.

Monica Trauzzi: Let's talk autos. Right now oil prices are quite low, and that translates to lower-than-usual gasoline prices for Americans. How does the downward trend in oil prices affect the ability of electric vehicles to compete?

Howard Learner: First of all, if I knew what the price of oil was really going to be one year, five years, 10 years from now, I'd probably be doing something else and trading based on that absolute certainty and making a lot of money. Today, oil prices are down somewhat. Different analysts have different projections of what's going to happen going forward. Clearly, the higher the price of oil, the more sense electric vehicles make just on the pure economics of it, but we're pretty bullish on electric vehicles.

If you look what's happening, for 100 years we had basically one car technology, the internal combustion engine, and then call it a half, diesel, which was mostly Europe when it came to cars. Today we're looking at plug-in hybrids, all-electric vehicles. We're looking at hybrid gas, compressed natural gas, fuel-cell vehicles. All those are different technologies that can be more or less useful for different purposes. Clearly if the price of oil stays relatively low for the long run, that favors the internal combustion engine. On the other hand, if oil prices go up and down and technologies keep getting better and we're going to 34, 35 miles a gallon by 2018 and 54 miles a gallon by 2025, which was really the key breakthrough during the first term in the Obama administration, electric vehicles should do pretty well in that scenario.

Monica Trauzzi: But many of these vehicle technologies mean increased pressure on the power grid. Can utilities handle it, especially considering the challenges they already face in meeting the clean power plant standards?

Howard Learner: First of all, for most electric utilities electric vehicles are a winner. It's more electricity use. It involves your distribution utility selling more electricity at a time when energy efficiency in our homes and businesses, LED lighting and others, is bringing demand down. Secondly, if you have charging at night, most places in the country, including the Midwest, peak power is during the day, peak power use. Nighttime demand is relatively lower, so charging electric vehicles in people's garages and homes and buildings at night actually flattens out the utility load in a good way that's a winner for everybody.

Monica Trauzzi: Why do you think other types of alternative vehicles have not seen the same success rate as electric vehicles?

Howard Learner: Well, first of all, look at what's happened with hybrids. When a couple of the automakers, particularly Toyota and Honda, came out with gas-electric hybrids about eight, 10 years ago, it was new and different, and if you had a friend who had a hybrid, it was really pretty unusual. Today lots of people have hybrid vehicles. Different manufacturers make them. Ford makes hybrids. A lot of the domestic automakers make them as well. Hybrids have really solidified their place in the market, and on that, the car is using electricity from the braking and using gas in a much more frugal way.

Electric vehicles are beginning to grow as well, but you're seeing compressed natural gas working for a number of fleets, so if you have a large fleet and all the trucks come back to a central facility at night, that's a good place, as natural gas prices are relatively low, to fill up the compressed natural gas vehicles. It's not one size fits all. Different technologies work better for different uses, and people in businesses now have an opportunity to shop. Before, everybody relied on the internal combustion engine, and now you're seeing businesses and people say, "What's the type of car technology that works best for my use?"

Monica Trauzzi: All right, Howard, always nice to have you on the show. Thank you.

Howard Learner: Good to join you. Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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