Guest Commentary

Want to cut down on fossil-fuel usage? Slow down, and enjoy the Western scenery

Just for grins, let's talk about lowering the speed limit on our interstate highways, say, to 65 mph on roads where it's now 75 mph, places where most people drive 80.

Go ahead and roll your eyes.

We've done this before, and I'll admit it wasn't much fun. That was in 1974, in response to the embargo of oil from the Middle East. We adopted the double-nickel limit of 55 mph. I got a rash of speeding tickets, two of them for going 67 mph, and I lost my driver's license. I'm sure that my hair, which was back then down to my shoulders, did nothing to help my cause.

As oil prices dropped, we got back to 65 mph, and, in the mid-1990s, when discretion was given to the states, to 75 mph on rural interstates in most parts of the West. Oil was cheap, and time was valuable, or so went the logic of the time.

Now we're fast advancing toward our fifth year in a war that arguably is mostly about ensuring the orderly flow of oil from the Middle East, and we're still roaring down the highway as if nothing has happened.

I'm rolling my eyes.

Engineers say the most efficient speed for a motor is somewhere between 30 and 55 mph. Beyond 60 mph, the fuel economy begins dropping off substantially. The cost is only pennies per mile, but that amounts to a couple of bucks for an hour's drive. Several studies show about a 12 percent reduction in gas consumption for those who slow from 75 mph to 60 mph. Those figures square with my personal experience. When I drive fast--and often, I still do--I spend more money at the gas pump.

Recently, after spending yet another $50 to fill up the car, I vowed an experiment on my next two trips, on a highway where the speed limit is mostly 75 mph. Instead, I vowed to hew to 65 mph.

Cars whizzed past me on the left like I was a street lamp. Occasionally, cars would come up behind me and, even though there were opportunities to pass, they did not do so--at first. I thought perhaps they had slowed because of my example. Nope. Soon enough, they'd blast past, probably unsure of the kook in the Buick. In four hours, I passed four vehicles.

Our habit of rushing to and fro in the West is mystifying. We take great pride in our landscapes. We love our wide-open spaces. But then we do our best to compress them. On the highway, it's bumper to bumper at 80 mph, traffic so hurried, you'd think we were fleeing a war zone.

It's been a gilded age, this time of free-flowing fossil fuels. We live so well, or at least so luxuriously, that the new norm of $3 per gallon has modified our travel habits only slightly.

Soon enough, though, we can expect $4 to $5 per gallon of gasoline, and perhaps in time, the $7 to $10 per gallon that the French and English already pay. How can this not happen? Decades ago, we notched our peak production of oil in the United States, and ever since have been importing ever larger amounts from foreign shores. While oil remains on Alaska's North Shore, it's probably little more than a pittance. Pre-oil kerogen from the shales of the Green River Formation of Colorado and Utah remains problematic. Biodiesel from french-fry grease makes us feel good, but it's largely symbolic. In most cases, it's only a 10 to 20 percent blend. Cellulosic ethanol, try as it might, is unlikely to be the miracle.

Internationally, production is still increasing, but for how long? A growing number of oil experts think we're up against global peak oil even as the Chinese begin ramping up their production at an incline that looks more like a 30-degree slope in the Palouse of Washington state than a wheat field in eastern Montana.

Would you slow down 10 minutes on the hour and look at the scenery? Yes, that is a preposterous notion. Isn't that what wars are for?

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