Oil-free Snohomish County? It’s no longer a pipe dream

This November voters will decide on an $18 billion Sound Transit measure and a new president.

At the local level, we will decide whether to raise taxes to expand transit. At the federal level, we will choose a president who promises a new energy policy. Both votes will be influenced by high gas prices, which are driven by our increasing addiction to oil.

Meanwhile, in just the latest example of how world events impact us at home, there is an uneasy truce along the far-away Russia-Georgia border.

Scoop Jackson’s earliest legislative priorities included energy independence for the U.S. and a clear-eyed concern for the threats posed by the Soviet Union. During Scoop’s last term, at the time of the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s, we imported 34 percent of our oil. Now it’s over 60 percent and increasingly the world depends on oil from places like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria — and Russia. For its part, Russia claims it is the only energy-independent superpower. The U.S., China and the European Union are all dependent on oil imports. Russia finds that because of others’ dependence, it can use oil and gas as a geopolitical weapon.

Our transportation system is 97 percent dependent on oil. The U.S. is now spending nearly $2 billion a day for foreign oil — much of it ending up directly or indirectly in undemocratic and unstable regimes. Some of this unprecedented transfer of wealth from the West to oil producing countries finds its way into the training camps for jihadists. As former CIA director James Woolsey has said, “We are paying for both sides of the War on Terror.”

Candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are both calling for strong measures to reduce U.S. dependence on oil. Both support efforts such as tax incentives and advanced battery research that will bring us closer to the day when consumers can buy affordable plug-in hybrid and electric-powered cars that will get more 150 miles a gallon.

Sen. Maria Cantwell has sponsored bipartisan legislation with Sens. Obama and Orrin Hatch to provide a $7,500 tax credit toward the purchase of plug-in electric hybrids. Locally, Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon has directed his staff to look into adding plug-in electric vehicles (PHEVs) to the county’s fleet and to support pilot projects to demonstrate their value. Local auto dealer Buzz Rodland says the Toyota Prius has a fierce loyalty among his customers and he has a growing waiting list for plug-in Prius versions that get three times the mileage a standard Prius does. Toyota and General Motors intend to sell PHEVs by 2010, and other manufacturers are working overtime to catch up.

Electrification of transportation has another advantage. According to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Climate Action Team, 47 percent of Washington’s greenhouse gases come from transportation — more than half of them in the Puget Sound region. In a key recommendation, her team said: “Plug-in hybrid vehicle technology (and advanced biofuels) offers one of the best opportunities to reduce transportation carbon dioxide emissions.”

This new technology can also make the electric power system more efficient. If vehicles are charged at night when other power demands are lower, the system becomes more efficient. The power system can help integrate renewable but intermittent wind power, which often blows at night when power is not needed. By storing night time power in the batteries of PHEVs, utilities including the Snohomish County PUD will be better able to integrate the intermittent wind power and other renewable power that voter-approved Initiative 937 mandates.

On Thursday and Friday at the Microsoft Conference Center in Redmond, leaders from international scientists to local car dealers and public works directors will gather to learn how advanced cellulosic ethanol (not derived from food crops) and electricity can replace oil in cars, school buses, mid- and short-range trucks, and SUVs.

The ultimate goal is to make the Northwest the first region in the nation to end its addiction to oil by replacing foreign oil with domestic electricity. Imagine what Washington and Snohomish County could do with the $12 billion to $14 billion we now send out of state for fuel.

Bruce Agnew is director of the Cascadia Center of Discovery Institute in Seattle. Steve Marshall is a senior fellow and a nationally recognized expert on energy and transportation issues.

Cascadia, Microsoft and the Idaho National Laboratory are co-sponsoring a conference Thursday and Friday at the Microsoft Redmond campus, “Beyond Oil: Transforming Transportation.” More information: www.cascadiaproject.org.

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