The US “Clean Cities” initiative: A smart way to reduce both pollutants and propaganda



For several decades the US government has done something intelligent (!) that didn’t cost much money (!!) that is actually having a true positive environmental benefit (!!!). This benefit is the sort of common sense goal that environmental expenditures should be aiming for – the program in question is cleaning the air of US cities, rather than paying for thousands to attend climate conferences around the world.


The initiative is the Clean Cities program, whereby cities can receive grants to convert fuel-pig municipal vehicles to cleaner burning fuels. The primary targets and beneficiaries are buses, garbage trucks, and all the other odd-looking, smoke-belching industrial contraptions that keep the gray world of utilities humming smoothly.


The impact has been significant, and the cost (compared to the frightening monkey-business governments can get up to) is surprisingly minimal. Since 1983, the program has saved the combustion of 7.5 billion gallons of petroleum, at a cost of approximately $300 million. Government haters will no doubt become apoplectic at that number, but let’s try to calm them down.


First off, the US energy landscape is making these look like very good expenditures. Many of the projects funded by the program are to convert oil-burning vehicles to natural gas burning. Natural gas is presently pretty cheap, and the outlook is that it will be that way for quite some time due to the US shale revolution. It’s unlikely to stay this cheap forever, but there are ample supplies available at reasonable prices to ensure that natural gas remains cost competitive for a good while.


Secondly, the US is awash in natural gas at present, and every vehicle converted to natural gas means that much less fuel has to be imported from global markets. From a national security perspective, that’s important; even if they’re cranky now and then Texans are light years easier to deal with than any place within missile’s reach of the Persian Gulf (the standard unit-of-distance measure in those parts). For decades the US maintained access to relatively cheap Middle East oil by keeping Saudi Arabia close, and having all those aircraft carriers hanging around to make sure the party didn’t get out of control. Now it is out of control. Saudi Arabia is no longer much of a friend, and the rest of the region is pretty much a big fireball with oil squirting out of it here and there.


If there were to be an oil shock – which could easily happen given that hundreds of billions of capital have been diverted from oil exploration – oil could become a matter of national security importance again. Which is why China is stockpiling. For the US, every bus or truck or fleet vehicle that uses home-made natural gas is one less that requires bowing down to the unstable masters who hold most of the world’s reserves. And it’s greener to boot.


And finally, what makes the program refreshing is that it’s about Clean Cities. The program captures what we should be doing and why; we should be adopting more efficient uses of energy because it makes for cleaner air, and it’s just a smart thing to do. We don’t need to wade into greenhouse gas propaganda, or climate change theatrics, which just tend to polarize debates. Clean Cities is an initiative pretty much everyone can agree on. (Except the inevitable right-wing crank who will send me a note that this is communist climate-bullsh*t nonsense. Don’t worry, I’m ready for you pal.)

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