GUEST COLUMN

Let’s get Maine off oil

Posted April 19, 2011, at 9:03 p.m.

For generations, politicians of both parties and all ideological persuasions have bemoaned Maine and America’s dependence on oil. And yet, nearly four decades after the 1973 Arab oil embargo that first exposed the economic costs of the nation’s dependence on oil, Maine and the country as a whole still remain dangerously addicted to petroleum – with massive impacts on our environment, economy and national security.

In fact, Maine is the fourth most oil dependent state in the country, as a result of our state’s heavy reliance on oil for both heating and transportation.

It’s no surprise then that Maine has neither overall goals nor a comprehensive plan to wean itself off oil – or even just to get started.

Maine’s oil use has been up and down over the last several decades, closely following trends in prices. As George Harrison sang, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

That’s why we’re backing a bipartisan bill, An Act to Reduce Maine’s Dependence on Oil (LD 553), to establish ambitious, yet realistic goals to reduce Maine’s oil dependence and ensure that our leaders create a plan to help us achieve them.

Mainers are familiar with the economic and national security toll of our state’s dependence on oil. For more than three decades, Mainers have dealt with periodic spikes in oil prices as well as the gnawing sense that our dependence on oil fuels and empowers nations that do not have our best interests at heart.

According to the Governor’s Office of Energy Independence and Security, for every $1 increase in a gallon of oil, Maine exports the equivalent of $1 billion from the state’s economy – an increase in price that we’ve seen since last September. Maine’s oil dependence was a huge drain on our economy.

Our dependence on oil also is a leading cause of many of our most intractable environmental problems – including air pollution, water pollution, global warming, exposure to health-threatening chemicals, and destruction of pristine habitats.

To take just one example, oil is Maine’s largest in-state source of air pollution, and the state suffers from unacceptably high levels of air pollution. Air pollution harms the health of many Mainers, contributing to cardiovascular problems, strokes, heart attacks, respiratory infections, inflamed lung tissue, and asthma attacks. Polluted air can even be fatal.

As oil becomes harder to find, the economic, national security and environmental toll of our dependence on oil will only increase.

Maine’s dependence on oil has been more than a century in the making, and ending it won’t be easy. The biggest obstacle to curbing petroleum consumption is the vast investment we have made over the past century in building infrastructure that cements our dependence on oil.

As Americans, we’ve become used to rapid turnover of technology – computers that were state of the art a decade ago are relics today. But when it comes to our energy system, it can take years – sometimes decades – to rebuild along sustainable lines.

Cars and light trucks last 12 to 15 years, locomotives and airplanes can last a couple of decades, and residential and industrial boilers can last 20 to 40 years. Transportation infrastructure, such as highways, last even longer, and communities can retain their basic form for hundreds of years.

Getting Maine off oil is a long-term process, which is why it is important to get started today. The technologies and policy tools exist to take the first, important steps.

By getting the most out of every drop of oil we use through improved energy efficiency, shifting toward transportation systems that use less oil, and by substituting clean fuels for both heating and transportation, Maine can achieve a dramatic reduction in our use of oil in the next two decades and beyond.

Every year, the stakes of Maine’s high-risk bet on oil as the major source of energy for our economy continue to rise. It’s time to commit to reducing Maine’s oil dependence – once and for all.

Andrew Campbell served in Iraq as a member of the Maine Army National Guard. He is a member of Operation Free. Emily Figdor is director of Environment Maine.

 

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