The BP oil disaster is certainly not the first oil spill in US history, but it could be the last. Nor is this the our worst oil spill — a Chevron refinery leaked over 250 million gallons of oil and refined product into aquifers beneath Los
Angeles for decades before it was discovered in the 1970s (the cleanup will take a century to complete). And the true cost of our oil addiction runs higher still — our kids in smoggy cities lose up to 1 percent of their lung function every year; the trillion dollar war in Iraq was mainly an exercise in controlling more oil; tar sands in Canada lay waste to vast landscapes and consume two or three times more energy to extract than they deliver in fuel to our tanks; even the weather patterns of an entire planet are altered because we haven’t evolved beyond burning fossilized remains from the earth.
But we could begin today to relegate all of these events to the history books by harnessing the power of an idea that saved the world once before. Remember World War II? Patriotic Americans bought war bonds to finance the path to victory in a just cause. Why not use the same tool again — call them Freedom Bonds — to end another form of global tyranny?
Let the Treasury issue revenue bonds and use the funds to build a network of electric car charging stations, hydrogen fueling stations, compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling stations, and supporting infrastructure for companies and utilities to provide those clean transportation fuels to consumers. From the bonds, let’s also pay anyone who is willing to convert an existing vehicle from gas/diesel to CNG or hydrogen (almost any car, truck, or bus on the road today can be converted to run on either) and provide funds to American automakers to retool assembly lines to turn out new models that run on clean fuels. Fund municipal bus lines, trash trucks, school buses, and government fleets to trade in old polluting vehicles for these clean models and help them convert existing fleets and fueling infrastructure.
Note that I called for Freedom Bonds to be “revenue bonds” so that not one taxpayer’s dollar is spent on this plan. The bonds would be repaid, with generous interest, from normal fuel surcharges added to the cost of each fuel, so we repay as we go. We need a bond financing mechanism like this however, because the upfront costs are significant and early revenues will be low. Over time though, the bonds are repaid in full by users of the clean fuels and vehicles.
Using these special T-bills to end our oil addiction and the tragedies like Deepwater Horizon is not even the most patriotic part of this plan, however. The best part is that 100 percent of the billions of dollars of Freedom Bond funding will be spent on American jobs. Building clean fueling infrastructure, paying mechanics to convert vehicles, helping GM, Ford, and Chrysler to make 21st Century cars and trucks will all be investments in the USA, but not a one-time stimulus that evaporates in a year. These will be full-time, long-lasting jobs that not only help America, but also create technologies at scale that we can export to the rest of the world.
Every one of us looks at the soul-numbing images coming from the Gulf and cries for something to do. We all feel the collar tightening around our neck when we learn how soon oil will run out, even as we see the desperate lengths to which oil companies and governments go to get that next barrel to meet our addiction. Buying Freedom Bonds will give each of us a good investment and pave the way for this to be the last time our world is dominated by a story like this.
Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is a partner at Pegasus Sustainable Century Merchant Bank and the Cullman Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. (Cracking The Carbon Code is a registered trademark of Terry Tamminen).