Will Paris Hilton's energy plan work?

The blonde socialite laid out her plan for energy independence Monday. How good is it?

By , Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor

As you probably know by now, the 2008 US presidential campaign became a three-way race Tuesday, as Paris Hilton, irked by John McCain's use of her image as electoral fodder, threw her hat in the ring.

Ms. Hilton declared her candidacy on comedian Will Ferrell's website, Funny or Die. The video shows the blonde socialite lounging by a pool in a leopard-print swimsuit and high heels at her home in the Hamptons as she announces that she is, "Like, totally ready to lead." After pausing briefly to finish reading an article in Condé Nast Traveller on where to fly to to get the best tan, Hilton outlines her energy policy:

Barack wants to focus on new technologies to cut foreign-oil dependency, and McCain wants offshore drilling. Well, why don't we do a hybrid of both candidates' ideas? We can do limited offshore drilling with strict environmental oversight, while creating tax incentives to get Detroit making hybrid and electric cars. That way, the offshore drilling carries us until the new technologies kick in, which will then create new jobs and energy independence. Energy crisis solved.

(Apparently, she recited all this without cue cards.)

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Assuming that Hilton wins the election, that the Constitutional presidential age requirement is amended so that she can serve, and that she is able to carry out her plan, will it work?

It all depends on timing. For the Hilton Plan to succeed in weaning America off foreign oil, we would need to see significant gains from offshore drilling before most of the US auto fleet could be converted to hybrid and electric cars.

So let's say that President Hilton succeeded in pushing through a package of generous tax incentives and stringent fuel-efficiency standards that made it so that, within five years of her inauguration, we have boosted the fuel-efficiency of the average new car and light truck to 35 miles per gallon (a 2007 bill signed into law by President Bush has mandated the same thing by 2020, so it wouldn't be a huge stretch to say that, given the political will, we could get there by 2014).

According to Bureau of Transportation statistics, the average passenger car gets 22.4 miles per gallon, and the average light truck gets 18 m.p.g. In the past decade roughly half of new car sales have been light trucks, so let's say that we've currently got an average fuel efficiency of about 20 m.p.g. That means that, if all cars on the road got 35 miles per gallon, then we'd see a 75 percent boost in our average fuel efficiency.

Currently America's 250 million or so autos account for about half of US oil consumption, which, according to the Central Intelligence Agency, is a little over 20 million barrels per day, with about 8 million produced domestically. So if we engineered our entire auto fleet to achieve an average of 35 m.p.g., we could probably get that down to about 12 or 13 million barrels a day.

But of course converting all of those cars takes time. According to a 2006 article in Forbes, in 2005 new car sales were 17 million, and used car sales were 44 million. And this recent article in Slate notes that the average American replaces his or her car every eight years. So, assuming that America's car-buying habits remain constant, we'd be looking at six or seven years before we've even got half of the US auto fleet converted, and probably a decade before most cars on the road are hybrids and electrics.

So based on these very rough calculations, let's say that under this plan we could get US oil consumption down to 13 million barrels per day by 2025. This is assuming we make no other reductions in oil consumption, and that American driving habits remain unchanged.

How does this timeline compare to that of offshore drilling? McCain said last week that offshore drilling could produce additional oil in a matter of months, but that analysis is – how to put this delicately – completely bonkers. A 2007 report by the Energy Information Administration found that drilling in off the coast in the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf "would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030."

What's more, total domestic production would be increased by only 3 percent by 2030, according to the report.

And most of that oil is located off the West Coast, and the governors of California, Washington, and Oregon are latimes.com/news/local/la-me-ocean30-2008jul30,0,2667305.story">vehemently opposed to any drilling off the shores of their states.

Joseph Romm, a former Clinton energy adviser and the blogger for Climate Progress, estimates that offshore drilling would net "under 100,000 barrels a day in supply sometime after 2020 — some one-thousandth of total supply."

And, despite its assertions, McCain's campaign actually knows better. In June, senior McCain campaign adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin acknowledged to the LA Times that "new offshore drilling would have no immediate effect on supplies or prices." He should have added that it will have no real long-term effect, either.

So in short, the Hilton Plan seems to have it backward: Even under fairly conservative estimates we have the ability to develop more fuel-efficient technology before we can access all the oil that's offshore.

But it also looks like, even with such technology, the United States would still need to be importing significant amounts of oil from abroad in the coming decades. If we really wanted to get ourselves off the sauce, we'd need to combine these technological improvements with developing walkable communities and extending public transit.

And energy independence alone won't save our hides. As James Hansen, the country's leading climate scientist, pointed out in 2006, unless we start reducing our greenhouse emissions – that is, our energy consumption – this decade, we face a tipping point in which global temperatures could rise as high as 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

As President Hilton would say, that's hot.

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