Making Every Oil Calorie Count

The following was written by environmental reporter and author of "Power Trip," Amanda Little, for The New York Times:

AS turmoil in Libya pushes up the price of oil, American consumers are once again feeling the sting of $3.50-a-gallon gasoline. But the impact of costly crude on our lives and economy extends far beyond the pump. Virtually everything we consume — from hamburgers, running shoes and chemotherapy to Facebook, Lady Gaga MP3s and “60 Minutes” — is produced from or powered by fossil fuels and their byproducts, all of which could grow more costly as the price of petroleum rises.

The problem is that there is no easy way to quantify how much total energy we consume. Fortunately, there’s a great model already in widespread use: the nutritional information that appears on the back of every food product. Why not create the same sort of system for energy?

Americans use more oil than people in any other developed country, about twice as much per capita, on average, as Britons. Indeed, our appetite for petroleum, like our fondness of fast foods, has spawned a kind of obesity epidemic, but one without conspicuous symptoms like high blood pressure and diabetes. And because we don’t see how much energy goes into the products and services we purchase, we’re shielded from knowing the full extent of our personal energy demands — and unprepared when rising fuel prices increase the cost of everything else.

This illusion stems, in part, from a measurement problem: while we expect and understand labels on our food products that quantify caloric, fat and nutrient content, we have no clear way of measuring the amount of energy it takes to make our products and propel our daily activities.

There’s no reason we can’t have energy labels, too. For example, in Europe, Tesco, a supermarket chain, has begun a “carbon labeling” program for some 500 products, which displays the amount of energy consumed and greenhouse gases generated from their production, transportation and use.

We could do the same thing here, with labels providing a product or service’s “daily energy calories.” Along with physical labels, imagine a smartphone app — we’ll call it “Decal” for short — that would scan a product’s bar code and report how much energy it took to produce that item.

Like the nutritional data on the backs of food products, Decal would give consumers a user-friendly, universal measure that they could use to compare products or count their daily energy intake. For example, the app would enable an energy dieter to scan two otherwise identical loaves of bread and see which one required less energy to produce.

Decal would have applications beyond the grocery-store shelf. By synchronizing with onboard computers in cars, buses and trains, it could tell you how much energy you use during daily errands and commutes. It would sync to a smart energy meter in your home to evaluate how much power you’re using and which appliances are the biggest guzzlers.

And at the end of the day, the app would generate your total energy diet: a Decal “score” that would quantify how many total energy calories you’ve consumed.

Once Decal took hold, the Department of Energy could recommend daily energy allowances, in the same way the Department of Agriculture recommends daily intakes of different nutrients. Experts could offer “diet” plans for energy-efficient lifestyles, and the Internal Revenue Service could offer tax rebates to families that achieve certain energy-calorie reductions.

True, not all Americans would adjust their energy intake. But many would, and we could expect producers to take up the program rapidly in response. After all, researchers have found that after food manufacturers were required in 2007 to state on their labels the amount of trans fat and saturated fat in their products, 95 percent of supermarket foods were reformulated with healthier fats. The effect would go beyond foods, too: by creating demand out of public awareness, Decal could help propel investment in energy-efficient innovations and industries.

Millions of Americans say they want the country to become more energy-efficient, but they’re wary of government-enforced rationing. Decal would avoid such overreach by giving consumers the information to change things themselves.

What America needs isn’t more cheap oil to feed a gluttonous economy, but rather better ways to use less. Any other path is the equivalent of ignoring our high cholesterol numbers and attributing our corpulence to a broken bathroom scale.


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