THREE NEW ENGLAND STATES LED BY VERMONT (8% REDUCTION!) CUT GASOLINE USE LAST DECADE—CAN 1990 GASOLINE USE LEVELS, THE U.S. GLOBAL WARMING GOAL, BE A REAL POSSIBILITY FOR THE NEW ENGLAND STATES?
University of Vermont economist Assistant Professor Arthur Woolf “How We're Doing” Burlington Free Press column last week discussed gasoline prices and statewide Vermont consumption features a graph showing gasoline sales down 2000 to 2010. A check with Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) series “Highway Statistics” shows Vermont 2000-2010 leading New England with an 8.0% drop in highway gasoline use.
Vermont joined Maine, -3.4%, and Rhode Island, -2.2%, while New England as a whole increased a fraction of a percent, 0.6%--and if you exclude the only outlier state, New Hampshire at plus 5.9%, then the other five states collectively dropped a fraction, -0.1%.
The 2000-2010 gas consumption plateau mirrors the sharp downtrend in Annual Vehicle Miles of Travel (AVMT) from a 38% growth in the 1980s to 3% 2000-2010 and an almost certain negative for this decade. These two trends—decreasing car travel and gasoline use now helped along with increases efficiency from national vehicle increases in miles-per-gallon standard--truly represents a major turning point for the six state area in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the overall U.S. goals of reaching 1990 levels. Lack of federal initiatives leave leadership to states and localities to undertake efforts. Burlington over a decade ago became one of the first U.S. cities to develop and formally adopt a climate change policy and lead its county (Chittenden) in cooperative and coordinated effort that includes specific initiatives, planning and monitoring.
Why is gasoline so important? First note the Vermont current and future estimates of car travel, gasoline consumption produced by the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VAOT) and contained in “Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan 2011” (State Energy Plan) prepared by the Vermont Department of Public Service represent, to be charitable, a completely misreading of Vermont and New England trends—the VAOT transportation content indicates continued growth in car travel and gasoline consumption. Regardless of the errors contained in VAOT generated estimates in the State Energy Plan estimates, vehicle transportation in the State and in this region amount to roughly half of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Second there remains no dispute that transportation moved up over the last decades in its percentage of states and region GHGs. Therefore, the decline in gasoline use combined with the almost certain decline in car travel constitutes a remarkable development.
Reduced driving reported by state and New England in this blog last week showed that for the first time—probably since the automobile came on the scene--a New England state, Rhode Island, Annual Vehicle Miles of Travel (AVMT) for a decade, 2000-2010, declined. The sharp downtrend in vehicle travel for New England—38% for the 1980s, 16% for the 1990s and 3% for 2000-2010—suggests a negative -2% to -7% for this decade.
The Vermont 6.4% AVMT growth reported by FHWA for 2000-2010 clearly represents a miscalculation if the generally solid data on gasoline use derived from tax monitoring, an 8% decline, is correctly reported in FHWA reports. (Vermont policy makers need to get a handle on accurate estimates of AVMT, AVMT trends and gasoline consumption trends to realistically analyze transportation trends and amounts of energy use and GHG emissions, and then fairly develop policies for all transportation modes and end users who generate GHGs in all sectors.)
Getting to 1990 GHG Emissions Levels
Can the 1990 gasoline usage levels in highway transportation be reached, and if so, how long might it take? The three New England states with reduced gasoline consumption shed some light on the potential for reaching 1990 consumption levels. Rhode Island leads the three states here needing only a 5.2% reduction in consumption from the 2010 level by 2020 to reach the 1990 consumption level—reasonable in view of the declines 2000-2010 of car travel, 0.9%, and gasolene consumption, 2.2%. It would take a decline in gasoline consumption of 13% for Vermont and 14% for Maine, respectively to reach 1990 consumption levels.
Of course there are many factors affecting gasoline consumption but many of them point in the right direction of potential reduction. Most important, the GHG reductions to 1990 levels in the area of transportation in New England now appear to be within the reach of state and local policy initiatives, particularly if even a modicum of support can be obtained from the federal government. Certain policies like “cap and trade” where those who reduce emissions can trade them with others needing emission allowances promise an economic advantage to New England states with “pollution allowances” to sell when GHG levels dip below the 1990 level target.