Can we turn the Ukrainian tragedy into opportunity for the planet?

OWOE Staff: The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy on many fronts – for the civilians caught in the crossfire, for the concept of democracy, and for the rest of the globe that will certainly feel the impact of economic sanctions imposed in an interconnected world. One impact of those sanctions in the US can be seen in the sharp rise in gasoline prices. In high-priced gasoline states like California, gas prices at the beginning of this week reached an average of about $5.40/gal (up about 10% from the previous week – see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Gasoline Price Increases from March 1 to March 8

Such a sharp increase, especially coupled with inflation stemming from the Covid pandemic stimulus packages and more recent supply chain issues, is certainly going to have a significant impact on Americans. Other impacts of the sanctions, including the US banning of Russian oil imports will create another round of challenges. US companies curtailing business in Russia will see impact to their financial bottom lines which will have a follow-on effect on the stock market. And now we are now getting warnings that prices for other commodities that Russia exports to the world have become volatile and are surging. But can something good come of this?

OWOE believes that the world can use this opportunity to step back and reassess how it moves forward to address the challenges of energy security, energy transition and climate change. In particular, how we can change our dependence on fossil fuels from a supply-focused approach to a demand-focused approach? This has been a recurring OWOE theme (Don’t Blame the Suppliers; The Fundamental (and Somewhat Existential) Source of Climate Change – and How We Might Overcome It). And just recently, Hal Kvisle, a former chief executive of TransCanada Corp., was quoted in BNN Bloomberg as saying: “Until consumers have other alternatives, other ways of getting around, or other ways of heating their homes effectively – until we address the demand on the consumer side – we’re not really going to change the balance”. Prior to the Ukraine invasion, the Covid pandemic dominated not only the news cycle but our daily lives. In 2020 the demand for gasoline (i.e., oil) dropped dramatically to a level not seen since the mid-1990s. This was driven in part by the economic stagnation during the first year of the Covid pandemic, with many people losing their jobs or being forced to take time off work and many others forced to work from home. As a result, transportation by both vehicle and plane dropped dramatically. Figure 2 shows petroleum consumption history from 1950 through 2020, with consumption by the transportation sector dropping from a yearly average of 14.1 million barrels/day in 2019 to 11.9 million barrels/day in 2020.

Figure 2: Petroleum Consumption (EIA February 2022 Monthly Energy Review)

But we managed to survive. Then in 2021 as many of the Covid restrictions were lifted, people started to return to a normal life, and, driven by the pent-up demand from the prior year, oil consumption surged. In November 2021 consumption in the transportation sector jumped up to 13.7 million barrels/day, or just 3% under the 2019 peak, as shown with the added data points.

The first conclusion that can be drawn from these numbers is that, with the right behavior, banning Russian oil imports should have essentially no impact on the US economy. In 2021 average oil imports from Russia were 672,000 barrels/day. That was only 5% of transportation needs (and only 3% of total oil consumption of 23.2 million barrels/day across all sectors). Loss of all Russian barrels would mean the November 2021 transportation consumption would have been about 13 million barrels/day, which would still have been well above the 2020 value. Given that Americans in 2022 are now driving on average 14,263 miles/year (on track for 3.2 trillion miles total) and that the average car in the US gets 23 mpg, it would only take a decrease of about 25 miles per year per vehicle to eliminate completely the need for the Russian oil imports. Certainly, support of Ukraine against Russian aggression is worth driving 1/2 mile less each week.

The second conclusion is that we now have a very good data point for what behaviors can quickly result in a 10-15% reduction in oil consumption, i.e., the 2019 to 2020 drop. This drop was not driven by the cost of gasoline; it was driven by a much broader reduction in demand. While a Covid-scale drop might be too aggressive and costly to the economy, an intermediate value seems very doable. Let’s continue to support clever ways to work remotely and reduce commuting; let’s focus on energy efficiency with electric vehicles, LED lights, home insulation, etc.; let’s scale back our rampant consumerism; let’s walk and bike more in place of driving. These are easy technology changes that can be made with minimal impact to lifestyle and the overall economy and could be greatly enhanced with government encouragement, including ad campaigns and incentive programs. The result would be a huge step forward in the US effort to reduce oil imports, and, concurrently, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help slow global warming.

OWOE also notes that we have been pointing out the risk that dependence on oil supplies from non-democratic countries creates for several years now. See OWOE blogs: Is There Any Limit to How Dumb Can Governments Get?, It’s a Mad Mad World of Energy,  Time for a New Energy Policy, etc. This crisis appears to be the catalyst might make that a reality. The European Commission just published plans to cut EU dependency on Russian gas by two-thirds this year and end its reliance on Russian supplies of the fuel “well before 2030”.

Hopefully, the Ukrainian tragedy can be used to change the mindset and approach of governments around the world. We’ve proven that we can live with less oil; now we need to make that the norm. It is time to eliminate dependence on Russia for any commodity, moderate our seemingly limitless demand for fossil fuels, and save the planet!

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