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December 09, 2005

Prius, Oil, and Time

Gristmill's ur-pundit David Roberts makes a good point concerning this post, discussing whether buying a Prius or other super-efficient vehicle really reduces climate-warming emissions.  What Dave is wrestling with is whether the oil "saved" by driving a Prius is really just bought by someone else -- leading to no net reduction in overall emissions. 

A few things to say here.  First, as astute commenter Patrick Niemeyer notes, the Prius has other benefits besides using less fuel -- it's also a phenomenally clean car.  Driving a Prius reduces your overall emissions of smog-forming compounds, particulate matter, and volatile organics.  For cars, cleanliness is, quite obviously, a good thing.

But that doesn't really get to the heart of Dave's point -- which is that super-efficient cars may ultimately be irrelevant if all the oil gets burned sooner or later.  I still think that's not quite right.  By reducing aggregate demand for transportation fuels in any given year, cars like the Prius offer a couple of clear, tangible benefits to the climate.

Let's say that for every 10 gallons of gas you save by driving a Prius, demand for gasoline from the global transportation system falls by six gallons -- that is, six gallons of gas aren't used in a given year, and are either placed in storage or not pumped out of the ground.  Now, of course, that gasoline may be burned next year, or the year after that.  But the pace at which carbon is emitted to the atmosphere does matter:  the longer the GHGs are in the atmosphere, the more heat they trap.  Delaying carbon emissions may reduce the pace of climate forcing, and buy a little time to deal with the consequences.

Which suggests reducing aggregate demand for transportation fuels can slow, however slightly, the pace of climate change. Which is a good thing.

The second benefit stems from this fact:   all else being equal, reducing aggregate demand for transportation fuels will reduce the price of oil.  And lower prices reduce the incentive to pull more oil out of the ground. 

For the "easy oil" -- the stuff that gushes from the ground, or can be coaxed out without too much trouble -- this probably doesn't matter.  (If you can produce a barrel of oil for under $10 with current technology, it's a pretty sure bet that it will get used up sooner or later.)  But for the hard oil -- stuff that takes a lot of technology, effort, and energy to produce -- price matters a lot.  Oil from, say, Alberta's tar sands might be extremely profitable to extract when oil's at $60 per barrel, but a money sink if oil prices fall below $40 per barrel.  Producing the really difficult oil is an especially big climate problem, since it often takes a lot of energy (and climate-warming emissions) to do so.

Now, if prices rise and people think they'll stay high, a lot of the relatively hard oil will get produced -- and sooner rather than later. And there's a huge supply of "hard" oil in the world.  By reducing demand, you make it less economically feasible to extract the really costly oil -- which reduces, or at least delays, the climate impacts of the transportation system.

Of course, it could be that, super-efficient cars or no, the world's "easy" oil will be used up eventually; and following that, prices will rise, and we'll start extracting the stuff that's harder to get at.  And it's even feasible to argue that it's better to face that day of reckoning sooner rather than later -- we'll have to face the music sometime. 

Nevertheless, a world of hybrid cars will probably come to that juncture, with all of the world's easy oil already tapped, a little bit later than it otherwise would; and it might--just might--prevent some of the really difficult oil from being produced at all -- especially if renewable energy technologies get more cost- and energy-efficient in the interim. 

To me, either result -- slowing the pace of global warming emissions, and/or keeping some hard-to-extract oil in the ground -- would be a boon for the climate.   Whether it's a cost-effective way to get to that benefit is a question for another time.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


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» Under What Assumptions Can a Toyota Prius Purchase Be Justified? from Detour
In yesterdays Wall Street Journal (12/14/2005 Page A21) Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. writes a scathing op-ed about misconceptions of Toyota Prius owners. Anyone with half a brain and exposure to elementary school level math knows that the purchase of a Toyo... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 15, 2005 10:40:37 AM


Wow. You guys are like heroically missing the point. Reading the WSJ editorial page for useful environmental perspectives is sort of like getting advice on your gay marriage from Focus On the Family-- it's an exercise in which you will always lose.

The WSJ editors are simply trying to make the Prius uncool. Why? I'm not sure exactly but I wouldn't be surprised if it's just because they like antagonizing do-gooder lefties. Seriously, those guys are just unusually smart asshole frat boys. These guys are masters at making the perfect the enemy of the good so as to keep everyone stuck with what they thrive on, i.e., the bad.

So that's the meta-point. Now let me destroy Dave's whole premise. He seems to recognize that the WSJ point about conservation not really conserving anything is absurd. He ignores the big picture-- that the super-clean Prius is a step in the right direction generally where the Hummers driven by the WSJ editorial board are not-- and focuses on the "narrow point" about whether conservation of oil really isn't conservation because it is after all oil and therefore the same amount of it will be used no matter how efficiently.

But wait a second isn't a hybrid a vehicle that can run on gas or electricity? Since electricity can be generated from any fuel source, the Prius isn't really as tied to oil as it might seem with a gasoline engine and all. The only reason oil has the effect Roberts thinks he see is that it inhabits privileged position of being practically the only game in town for U.S. autos. The Prius is the first step away from oil dependency because it makes electric vehicles (albeit one for now "parasitically" dependent upon a gasoline engine) mainstream.

The next logical step is a production Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) which allows consumers the choice of using gasoline or grid electricity or home-grown electricity. Hobbyists are already souping up their Priuses with plug-in technology, and it won't be long before it's offered as a manufacturer option. At that point, the playing field between oil and other fuels begins to level, as any spike in oil prices could instantly be met with conversion to other fuel sources, and perhaps more importantly any alternative that becomes price-competitive with oil could replace it quite easily.

Finally, the true absurdity of the WSJ point of view can be revealed by considering the opposite case: it is an act of conservation to drive a Hummer because by wasting oil you are causing the price to go up, which will make someone else buy a Prius. Therefore, you're not really "wasting" the oil because you cause someone else to use it more efficiently. Riiight.

Sorry, but the WSJ editors are mad as hatters and you would be crazier than a shithouse rat if you look to them for anything other than environmental skulduggery. If you think when you respond to the WSJ editorial board on environmental matters you are engaged in a serious debate with someone who also cares about the sustainability of the planet and public health in general, then you are sadly mistaken. They are just trying to plant conceptual viruses into the environmental noosphere and deserve only intellectual RAID-- i.e., derision.

In my opinion, Clark, you really shouldn't regard David Roberts so highly-- you're a much better enviro-pundit. Roberts seems to have this thing about trying to engage the AEI crowd by actually taking the specious enviro-babble they produce as serious debate. I don't care how clever you are or how well you write-- if you can be co-opted by people who oppose everything you stand for, you're an idiot.

Posted by: Jason | Dec 9, 2005 11:27:30 PM

"And it's even feasible to argue that it's better to face that day of reckoning sooner rather than later -- we'll have to face the music sometime."

In what sense feasible?

We would not say it was feasible to argue for facing the end of natural gas, cod, old growth forrests, etc., sooner rather than later.

Oil is an important natural resource, but it isn't really so different than ... the Easter Island forrests so often used in comparison.

Posted by: odograph | Dec 10, 2005 6:38:13 AM

BTW, I agree with what I think is your take-away, that hybrid cars make a positive contribution at the margins. To the extent that markets shift in a wide way from large less efficient cars to smaller and more efficient ones, that contribution will grow.

Posted by: odograph | Dec 10, 2005 6:39:47 AM

I find the anti-conservation analysis to be a rather amusing catch-22. On the one hand, the problem is so big that individual efforts won't make a difference. That's why there's no point in following the insignificant Kyoto agreement.

On the other hand, if you buy an efficient car, the gas-savings effects will be so significant that the price of gas will go down. Somehow, by using less gas, you will end up causing more to be burned.

So, I guess the only way to save oil is to buy a Hummer, drive it a lot, and pay lots of extra money for gas. By over-using gas, I will drive up the price and cause other Hummer owners to buy hybrids ... but that won't work. I guess I should just buy what GM wants to sell and quietly wait for hydrogen to save me.

Posted by: jimsum | Dec 11, 2005 9:27:53 AM

I also suspect WSJ editorial board dismisses hybrid technology because they see it as a threat to various systems of corporate power.

Poster Jason highlights the advantage of flexible fuel/energy sources the next generation Plug-in Hybrid offers. Once enough people use rooftop photovoltiac solar panels to recharge PHEV battery packs, public power should gain foothold, contrary to the interests of Enron-esque private utility companies.

GM has marketed psuedo-hybrid vehicles that do not meet the definition of hybrid. GM Silverado and Saturn VUE add an electric 'assist' or a 'stop-start' feature that improves mileage slightly, but do not propel the vehicle without the internal combustion running. As such, these psuedo-hybrids never run zero emission operation, nor under ideal condition of on battery power alone where fuel mileage becomes unlimited. Again, it is a conflict of interests for energy/fuel corporations and their WSJ bedfellows to allow motorists such this option.

The hybrid drive train is inherently safer than most cars on the road. Adding batteries lowers vehicle center-of-gravity, improving stability, handling and reducing the potential for accidental rollover. The elctric motor has a 'flat' torque curve, meaning, the amount of torque does not increase with higher rpm. Could this actually discourage maniacal accelleration? Does GM actually rely upon 'planned obsolescence', or even accidents for vehicle replacement? Since GM got cozy with Hitler, I have to believe they do.

Posted by: Sirkulat | Dec 11, 2005 6:56:33 PM

Thanks for the nice words vis-a-vis Dave R. So does that mean I'm an ur-pundit?

On the WSJ ed board -- as a general matter, I think they're wacked out nutjobs, and mostly out to score points rather than seriously advance a substantive discussion. But even wacky people are occasionally correct -- so I don't mind it when people take their points seriously (or, really, pretending they're earnest suggestions).

And to me, oil is one of those really hard to grapple with issues -- it's *super* high-value stuff; oil extraction technology changes every bit as quickly as the technology of alternatives; and the system-wide effects of energy-efficient technologies are hard to predict. Dave's question of whether all the oil will just be used up anyway actually gives me pause, since I have to think about it a while to understand how to frame an answer.

So I don't mean to defend Dave here -- but even though I think he's mistaken, and that the Prius could in fact help keep some oil in the ground, I don't think he's just being a tool for asking the question.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Dec 12, 2005 4:52:30 PM

I think the bottom line is oh so easy to see. "The economy" benefits from energy efficiency. Unfortunately a shift toward personal transportation efficiency has this short term negative effect for makers of large SUVs. So the WSJ steps up to defend them. In a free society that is their right.

It is also, certainly, the right of the environmental community to argue from the other side, that personal transportation efficiency not only has short term positive effects for consumers, but long term positive effects for the planet as well.

I'm not sure why the WSJ article was so seductive to some. It could be a "hype reaction" in equal opposite direction to "hybrid love." It could also be a little misdirected "pot stirring."

But really, a number of broad consortiums have been formed in recent years on the benefits of conservation, including and particularly on the benefits of gasoline conservation. My personal favorite continues to be the The Alliance to Save Energy


Posted by: odograph | Dec 12, 2005 7:19:36 PM

odograph, as usual, puts it more succinctly than I.

However, I reserve the right to think Dave R. is a tool until shown otherwise by empirical evidence. As it is, I find every time I wonder over to Grist I find it frustrating that they waste so much energy giving the benefit of the doubt to the WSJ editor/AEI crowd. You know things are off when people are being ridiculed for good-faith efforts at conservation without equal-opportunity bashing of heedless wasters, and conservationists are wasting time trying to debate "narrow points" without realizing they've just conceded the (ridiculous) premise. You been framed!

Posted by: Jason | Dec 12, 2005 9:54:19 PM

er, that's "wander" not "wonder". I think the "wonder" comes from wondering why I waste my time at Grist.

Posted by: Jason | Dec 12, 2005 9:55:53 PM

Hello Jason, welcome to our 'wondering' club. We're so big now we don't have to collect dues. :o) IMHO, I don't think Dave R is a tool, just someone who hasn't yet realized the AEI crowd isn't interested in 'debate', and engaging them with Enlightenment Principles is a waste of energy.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Dec 13, 2005 8:45:34 AM

Hybrids are currently an experimental technology that if it proves succesful will spread widely. When the bugs are worked out you will just buy hybrids standard (no government mandate requierd). The Prius is the first step - Toyota proved that people wanted fuel efficiency so bad they'd pay extra and weather the issues of the experimental technology as they popped up.

If we can get more efficient and less toxic battery technology its going to be a winner for everyone (unless you've placed a huge bet on PeakOil in the next few years - then you lost your money). Every vehcile will come standard with a hybrid power train and the biggest vehicles (big commerical trucks and trains) will reap the benefits even larger. When sustainability pays cash up front it usually isn't much of a debate to adopt it.

I realize many on this thread might be cheering the "day of rekconing" with a limited petroleum supply and view hybrids as just prolonging this BUT eventually techonology will find solutions. Better to find solutions that improve efficiency reducing operating costs rather than those that produce more hydrocarbon by lowering fuel costs.

Hybrids and other battery derivitive advancements are going to solve alot of energy issues. Specifically as we develop ways to pull solar and wind power and meter it onto the grid consistently. Now the debate just becomes what to do at the end of the life of the battery.

Posted by: DarePDX | Dec 18, 2005 11:31:44 PM