By Michael Shank and US Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD)

Russia, Canada, and the United States are rushing to the North Pole in a pioneer-like land grab for an estimated 25 percent of the world’s unknown oil and gas reserves. One wonders when we will learn. Oil and gas are not forever. We need to change course and save some to ensure a secure energy future.

The National Petroleum Council recently warned, in “Facing the Hard Truths About Energy,” that oil and gas supplies are unlikely to meet projected world demand in 2030. Rather than depleting finite fossil fuels upon which future generations will depend, and considering their effects upon our planet’s environment, we must invest in efficiency and renewable alternatives.

This month, Congress has an opportunity to show real teeth on this matter as it reconciles Senate and House omnibus energy bills in conference. Since electricity and transportation are the top two sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., at 34 and 26 percent, we think the final bill should contain the following two components:

First, the Conference Report should include a flexible, affordable, achievable national Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) for electricity generation. The Senate version failed to include Sen. Jeff Bingaman’s proposal for a 15 percent RPS or Sen. Pete Domenici’s 20 percent RPS, but has three times previously approved a 10 percent RPS. The House bill was able to eke in a bipartisan 15 percent RPS. It requires only investor-owned utilities to produce 15 percent of their electricity from wind, solar, biomass, and certain other sources by the year 2020 — with 4 percent achievable through energy efficiency.

Requiring some but not all utilities to generate 15 percent of their electricity from certain sources and limiting energy efficiency is controversial. Some regions will have an easier time extracting sun, wind, or biomass than others. For many utilities and states, the renewable infrastructure does not exist, or if it does, it is negligible. So how to reduce the transition cost and gain the support of renewable-light states, utilities, and their customers and the members of Congress who represent them?

Since we depend upon energy and global warming impacts all of us, teamwork is critical. To capture support for a national RPS, changes may be necessary. It should be affordable for low-renewable utilities to purchase energy credits from high-renewable states to meet the 15-percent mark by 2020. We need to prevent driving energy-intensive, high-paying manufacturing jobs overseas. Low-renewable states could be afforded a higher ceiling on energy efficiency, perhaps double or triple the 4-percent limit. Some argue all utilities should be included to level the playing field. Others advocate reducing the goal to 10 percent.

Second, the Conference Report should include stronger vehicle efficiency standards, better known as CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy). Since 1975, Congress has not significantly adjusted CAFE standards. At present, passenger cars are required to get 27.5 miles per gallon while SUVs and light trucks are set at 22.2 mpg. Compare these numbers with the European Union’s 2008 standard of 44.2 mpg, Japan’s current average vehicle fuel economy of 45 mpg, and China’s levels at mid-30s and rising. The Senate bill requires cars, trucks, and sport-utility vehicles to achieve 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The House, however, did not include a CAFE overhaul.

Americans want a cleaner environment and are tired of paying more to drive to work. Lower-emission, higher-mileage vehicles, such as hybrids, are gaining in popularity. That is a key reason Toyota surpassed the U.S. Big Three as the world’s top manufacturer. Foreign manufacturers now outsell American makers in the U.S. Incentivizing Detroit to go green will allow Americans to do our wallets and our pride good and make our domestic auto industry more competitive in world markets.

North Pole scavenging will get us little but a brief reprieve in the world’s current race to the bottom of the oil barrel. More efficient and cleaner electricity and vehicles, given their combined 60-percent responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, would help the environment and Americans’ pocketbooks. Americans need political pioneers, not the glacier flag-planting types, to ensure a secure energy future.

Michael Shank is an analyst with George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Roscoe Bartlett is a Republican who represents Maryland’s 6th District and is the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus.