Beyond BP: How consumers can help staunch the toxic tide

"Beyond Petroleum" indeed! It's great that, in response to the Gulf oil tragedy, President Obama has reaffirmed his commitment to clean alternative energy sources like solar. It's also time Americans took the wind out of the sails--and sales--of BP, those deep-drilling privateers brandishing their greenwashing slogan. There's a lot we can do as individuals, both as voters pushing for clean energy and as consumers. Consumers represent 70% of U.S. economic activity. It's time to wield our marketplace power and, step by simple step, move beyond petroleum on our own.

In many states, we can now choose green power, like solar or wind, for our homes through our utility. Replacing old appliances, like air conditioners, refrigerators and washing machines, with Energy Star models also means big savings for the planet and, thanks to state and federal rebates and other incentives, for our budgets.

It's worth refreshing ourselves on the myriad ways we can move beyond fossil fuels. "If enough people reduce driving or switch to more energy-efficient vehicles, gasoline demand would decline and prices would be dampened," the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports.
It's basic economics: reduced demand results in reduced production.

Apart from personal investment in alternative energy, driving less/ carpooling more and buying low-mileage cars, we can reduce our demand for fossil fuels by not wasting, or "spilling" them in our daily lives.

Take as a ballpark figure the oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez tanker into Prince William Sound in 1988: 11 million gallons, or about 261,904 barrels. It is now estimated that 4 million gallons of oil, or up to 95,000 barrels, are spewing into the Gulf from BP's Deepwater Horizon well every day, meaning that BP's blowout may be surpassing the Exxon Valdez total every three or four days.

As summer heats up, there are many simple things we can do to stop "spilling" comparable amounts of oil and filling the industry's pockets. In this way, we can conserve our own resources and the sensitive ecosystems that are threatened by oil and coal extraction.

* Make sure automobile tires are properly inflated: By conservative estimate, this would save 800 thousand barrels of oil a day. See more driving tips that will conserve oil and reduce your carbon emissions from the Union of Concerned Scientistsand Environmental Defense Fund.

* Drink tap, not bottled water. If every American stopped buying water in disposable bottles, we'd save at least 17 million barrels of oil a year. That's the equivalent of taking one million cars off the road, according to the Pacific Institute.

* Eat a little less red meat. . If all Americans skipped red meat for one day a week, it would reduce the equivalent in carbon emissions of taking 20 million cars off the road for a year. Substituting vegetables for one day equals driving 1,160 fewer miles per year. As Michael Pollan reported in "Power Steer," the fossil-fuel fertilizers used on the corn fed to one beef calf adds up to about 284 gallons of oil. About thirty-two million cattle are slaughtered in the U.S. each year for beef, , so in addition to blood, that arguably "spills" more than 9 billion barrels of oil.

While we're at it, we can collectively and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and their effects, such as more extreme weather , through the following simple consumer choices:

*Replace your next burned-out incandescent lightbulb with an Energy Star approved efficient compact fluorescent (CFL) or light efficient diode (LED) bulb. If every U.S. home replaced a conventional bulb with a CFL, we'd conserve enough energy to light 3 million homes and as much in greenhouse gas emissions--9 billion lbs-- as removing 800,000 cars from the road for a year, according to the EPA. . CFLs last 10-13x longer than incandescents do, and LEDs last 10x longer than CFLs. If every U.S. household replaced 5 bulbs this way, it would save the equivalent of the output of 21 power plants. Plus, incandescents waste 90% of their energy as heat, whereas CFLs waste 30% and LEDs don't heat up at all.

*With cooler lighting in summer, you can turn your air conditioner temperature up a bit. Air conditioning represents 21% of annual home electricity consumption. A shift from 72°F to 74°F in the summer will save 366 pounds of CO2/year and $28 on the average annual energy bill.

Worldwide, by improving energy efficiency in buildings and transportation, we can save 64 million barrels of oil a day, the equivalent of one and a half times U.S. annual energy consumption, McKinsey & Co. reports. Consumer harvesting of this "low-hanging fruit," as McKinsey terms it, may motivate the oil industry to pay more than lip service to developing renewable energy sources.

Ironically, through reinvigorated voter demands for meaningful regulation and reduced consumer demand for oil, the Deepwater Horizon debacle may yet make BP's false green tagline come true.

Mindy Pennybacker's book, Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices, was published by St. Martin's Press this spring.