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If Britain Starts Fuel Rationing, Could US Be Next?

By Erik Curren

22 January, 2011
Transition Voice

Gas rationing almost came to the US during the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. Could we see it in the future? And would that be so bad?

This week, a group of the British parliament released a plan to start rationing fuel within the next ten years. Could the US follow suit?

The plan calls for the government to issue an equal number of Tradable Energy Quotas to all British adults for free and to auction credits off to businesses and government agencies. The goal of TEQs would be to encourage conservation and to deal with any future energy shortages in a way that's more fair than letting high prices determine who buys energy and who doesn't.

In the face of runaway climate change and imminent peak oil, Britain is thinking ahead.

Scary, but less than the alternative

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil, which put out the plan, explains how the system would work: "When you buy energy, such as petrol for your car or electricity for your household, units corresponding to the amount of energy you have bought are deducted from your TEQs account, in addition to your money payment. TEQs transactions are automatic, using credit-card or (more usually) direct-debit technology."

When fuel costs rise, high prices serve as an unofficial form of rationing, as lower-income people start to cut back. But price rationing is inherently unfair, as it favors the rich, who can still consume energy wastefully even if prices are higher.

As Jeremy Leggett, author of The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era and member of the UK business community's peak oil task force, explained:

What I like about TEQs is the fairness of it. When the energy crunch hits us, it will behoove government and industry to ensure equitable access to available energy, within a national budget. TEQs is a route to synergisitic efforts of the kind we will need if we are to mobilize the infrastructure of a zero-carbon future fast, under pressure. It would increase the chances of working our way through the grim times to renaissance-through-resilience.

With oil trading near $100 per barrel in London and Britain's Fuel Poverty fund stretched to heat low-income households this winter, the TEQ proposal comes at a tough time for energy in the UK. While the report recommends implementing the fuel rationing system sometime in the next ten years, if fuel costs continue to rise then it's likely that the government would have to consider some form of energy rationing sooner.

A way to get citizens involved

Britain has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 32% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 from 1990 levels. Though it is unlikely to meet its near-term pledges, the UK will need something like TEQs to have any chance of making real cuts to its greenhouse emissions.

And cutting emissions even more will require a society-wide effort that gets the public more deeply involved. TEQs could be just the thing to pull citizens in as climate fighters -- either for or against.

Britain's 2008 climate law already authorizes the government to release TEQs. But because of its far-reaching implications, the peak oil group thinks that a separate law would be needed to implement any energy-quota plan in the future. In the meantime, to gauge public support for what is sure to be a controversial measure, the group has begun to promote the scheme.

The report, compiled for the parliamentary group by London-based consultancy the Lean Economy Connection and based on the theories company founder David Fleming who died in November last year, aims to make any energy-quota system both simple and flexible enough that it will be easy for people to comply.

In particular, because extra energy quota units would be freely traded on an open market, there would be no temptation to resort to a black market for ration coupons. This of course, would reward conservation and would reduce the impact of rising energy costs on the poor, who use less energy by definition.

In its analysis, the parliamentary group demonstrates a thoughtful analysis of consumer behavior:

Behavioral studies have consistently shown that intrinsic motivation (that is, desiring the actual consequences of undertaking a task) drives us more effectively than extrinsic motivation (being rewarded for doing something, or penalised for not doing it). For Daniel Pink’s entertaining presentations on this research see his TED talk or RSA animation. The important Common Cause report (Sept 2010) considered motivation with regard to environmental issues in particular, and reinforced this conclusion. But this understanding has largely failed to penetrate climate policy, which is generally based on classic ‘carrot and stick’ ideas about motivation.

When the British last used rationing from 1940 to 1954, the program had a profound affect on the public, and "is largely remembered not as a time of deprivation but of plucky courage, solidarity and fortitude in the face of a dangerous adversary," according to TIME magazine.

Not born in the USA

Thanks to the bi-partisan efforts of Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), Capitol Hill has had a Congressional Peak Oil Caucus since 2005. But despite the unfailing work of Bartlett in particular, who at age 85 still hasn't given up trying to convince his colleagues to take energy depletion seriously, Bartlett told me he doesn't expect Congress to propose any way to price carbon anytime soon.

"The Europeans are leading in many ways," Bartlett said in a phone conversation. "But we're still in denial."

And while both the Department of Energy and the military's Joint Forces Command have put out reports on the dangers of America's addiction to oil, we are unlikely to see anything out of Washington with the subtle reasoning and forward thinking showed in recent years by the UK parliament.

Robert Hirsch, who wrote that Department of Energy report on peak oil in 2005, even included a plan for gas rationing in his 2010 book, The Impending World Energy Mess.

But these voices are not on the ascendant in America today.

On this side of the pond, where down-home ignorance has become a sign of authenticity, where Sarah Palin shapes the English language and where Tea Partiers proudly wield misspelled signs with nonsensical messages like "Government: Hands Off My Medicare," unfortunately what we can expect to see on energy is just more no-nothing sloganeering along the lines of "drill baby drill" and more efforts by the GOP-led House to cut spending on clean energy and efficiency while leaving fossil fuel subsidies alone.

Even though the rest of the world may be tired of waiting for Washington to get on board to cut our use of fossil fuels or our greenhouse emissions, it will be impossible for the world to reach any reasonable energy or climate targets without the United States also making cuts.

And America can choose to make those cuts on its own, either to slow climate change, prepare for peak oil or both. Or, other nations can pressure the US to make cuts through trade sanctions.

Aside from the failed cap-and-trade, a couple of serious plans for the US to voluntarily cut fossil fuel use have already been proposed by climate and peak oil activists.

>> NASA climatologist James Hansen has proposed a cap-and-dividend plan that would charge upstream emitters such as oil and coal companies for the privilege to pollute and pay out the proceeds to families to offset higher energy costs.

>> On the peak oil side, Colin Campbell and Richard Heinberg's Oil Depletion Protocol (see Heinberg's 2006 book The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse) would call for nations to cut their oil imports by 2% annually.

But without either a huge public campaign funded by billionaires like that imagined by Ralph Nader in "Only the Super-rich Can Save Us!" or some type of catastrophic event like an oil shock, it is unlikely that the US will soon pass any national policy to put a price on carbon.

That leaves the involuntary option.

Kicking and screaming

In the most likely scenario, the international community, led by Europe and Japan, would agree on an emissions-cutting plan more robust and binding than the Kyoto Protocol, one that would inevitably include some form of carbon tax or energy-quota system like the British TEQs. Then, the participating nations would form a new trading bloc that would punish outliers with import tariffs. As the parliamentary peak oil group explains:

Ideally there would be a TEQs scheme in each nation, which would mean that embodied emissions would always be accounted for within a robust national budget. However, given that TEQs will almost certainly be implemented by some nations before others, import tariffs will be necessary to ensure that domestic producers are not disadvantaged. This was once regarded as politically unthinkable, but as the President of the European Commission shows in this article, that is no longer the case.

Recently, James Hansen called for China to take the lead on a global carbon-pricing system that would force the United States to either join in or face trade restrictions. With the vitriol they like to throw at climate change activists, right-wing blogs have denounced Hansen, with one article accusing him of "treason."

But given the stupidity of public discourse on the issue of climate in America today on the one hand and the power of Big Oil and Big Coal on Capital Hill on the other (with the House GOP "kissing fossil fuel ass" as Grist puts it) the US may not be capable anymore of taking intelligent action to control our own energy use and greenhouse emissions, voluntarily and while there's still time to make a difference.

In that case, it's likely that the rest of the industrialized countries will move ahead without us. And if they do, the British TEQ plan is sure to be on the table.

Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. With his wife Lindsay Curren he co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in January 2010. He is managing partner of the Curren Media Group.



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