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March 2, 2009

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IN DEPTH: LEGISLATIVE ISSUES

Energy Independence and Climate Change: Public Transportationís Critical Role
By JOHN R. BELL, Program Manager-Communications

With the arrival of a new Congress and a new Administration, energy independence and climate change are at the forefront of the nation’s agenda. New legislation and regulatory actions are likely to come soon—developments that will have a major impact on public transportation.

While many Americans realize that the nation has become more dependent on foreign oil in the past few decades, they may not realize just how much public transportation reduces that dependence. Nor do they understand by how much foreign oil imports could be reduced if public transit ridership were to undergo a steady—and significant—long-term increase.

About 36 percent of America’s oil came from foreign sources in 1975—a figure that increased to 58 percent by 2007! The U.S. imported almost five billion barrels of crude oil and oil products in 2007; more than 40 percent (2.2 billion barrels) came from members of the OPEC cartel, such as Saudi Arabia (532 million barrels) and Venezuela (almost 500 million barrels).

But public transportation is making great strides toward reducing this dependence. For example, households located near public transit drive an average of 4,400 fewer miles each year, saving 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline. This is equal to nearly 40 percent of the gasoline the U.S. refines from Saudi oil.

Climate Change
Most mainstream scientists accept that the emission of carbon into the atmosphere causes climate change—and public transit contributes substantially to limiting carbon emissions. To illustrate, an individual commuter who switches to public transit from driving a car reduces his or her annual carbon dioxide emissions by 4,800 pounds per year. In addition, communities that invest in transit reduce carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons each year.

To put the latter amount in perspective, consider this: to equal this savings in carbon emissions, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Denver, and Atlanta combined would all have to stop using electricity.

Just as a continued increase in public transit ridership will demonstrably increase energy independence, it also will have a dramatic benefit on carbon emissions.

A new APTA paper, Changing the Way America Moves: Creating a More Robust Economy, a Smaller Carbon Footprint, and Energy Independence, notes that a slow but steady increase in transit use (5.5 percent) would, by 2020, save the U.S. an additional 4.5 billion gallons of fuel per year and an additional 46 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year. By 2050, this increase would help public transportation save the nation more than 48.1 billion gallons of fuel per year—more than the amount of gasoline refined from the oil the U.S. imports from OPEC countries—and cut annual carbon emissions by 449.2 million metric tons, well over one-third the carbon emissions from the gasoline used for transportation purposes today.

Forthcoming Legislation
Lawmakers have made many attempts to address both energy independence and climate change through various bills introduced in the last decade. Among the most recent and noteworthy was the Warner-Lieberman bill, formally America’s Climate Security Act of 2007.

This bill, which would have restricted how much carbon corporations could emit and let them trade credits based on their emission limit, aimed to reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent from 2005 levels by 2050 and raise $6.7 trillion over the course of four decades through the auctioning of carbon credits. Unfortunately, the legislation did not pass the Senate, nor did a number of other bills related to energy and climate change that were also were put forth in the 109th and 110th Congresses.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has laid out a list of principles she wants to see in any forthcoming climate change bill, including an effort to reduce emissions “to levels guided by science” and set targets that are “certain and enforceable.” Such legislation must also:

* Maintain state and local anti-warming efforts;

* Use a market-based system, such as cap-and-trade, rather than a carbon tax;

*  Use proceeds from the sales of emissions permits for a variety of uses, such as support for consumers, governments, businesses, and workers (presumably to help offset higher energy prices under the system); investments in alternative energy; and preserving wildlife and ecosystems threatened by warming; and

* Ensure a “level global playing field . . . so that countries contribute their fair share to the international effort to combat global warming.”

In addition, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said at a hearing last month that he plans to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation before the Memorial Day recess in late May.

Carbon Emissions Regulation
Such legislative plans could be accelerated by expected forthcoming actions by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions.

Nearly two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Massachusetts v. E.P.A., that the agency must determine whether carbon emissions pose a threat to human health and welfare; EPA may announce its findings on April 2, the anniversary of the ruling. Moreover, the new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, has indicated the agency will review the Bush Administration’s ruling that the agency would not regulate emissions from new coal-burning power plants.

Impact on Public Transportation
The new focus on reducing fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions can only help public transit by emphasizing two major benefits the industry brings, which in turn will direct positive attention to every system.

This emphasis on public transit’s impact on the environment will also remind the public and elected officials of its unique role in moving the nation toward a solution to these vexing problems.

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