A new study by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) highlighting the 10 U.S. states most sensitive to oil price shocks points up major changes in both passenger and freight transportation need to reduce that vulnerability. And NRDC wants trucking to play a significant role in the process.

The group said its research indicates that the 10 states most susceptible to oil price spikes are: Mississippi, Montana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, Maine, Georgia and Idaho.

With that long roster in mind, NRDC wants the U.S. to engage in a bevy of broad policy initiatives to reduce oil use such as: passing comprehensive climate and energy legislation that limits carbon dioxide emissions and reduce fuel usage; fundamentally reform federal transportation policy to support public transit-oriented development; and provide ample funding for rail and bus lines, bike paths, sidewalks, and other alternatives to driving cars.

Deron Lovaas, NRDC’s transportation expert, said the group’s recent economic white paper, Ranking States Oil Vulnerability: Assessing the Continued Threat of Gas Price Spikes, compiled with the help of research firm David Gardiner & Associates, suggests several key changes truckers could make to help reduce U.S. oil dependency.

Those changes include: shifting more long-haul freight to pure rail and intermodal transport; establishing fuel economy performance standards for medium, and heavy-duty trucks; and increasing the use of biofuels, such as biodiesel, in commercial trucking applications.

“We hope the trucking industry will participate in our efforts to reduce oil dependency,” Lovaas, told FleetOwner. “We’re also seeking the development of a more strategic freight transportation plan in the U.S. as well,” he said. “What we don’t want is a ‘food fight’ between the modes – we believe there will be enough freight for everyone in the future. We need a unified plan for transporting both passengers and freight in order to successfully reduce our national dependency on oil in the coming decade.”

While other transportation analysts agree more freight connections and shifts between rail and truck modes could indeed reduce oil consumption, they tend to feel more attention must be paid to the big picture in terms of how goods move within national and global supply chains.

“Existing market forces have already done an excellent job of maximizing fuel efficiency by allowing rail and truck to do what they do best,” said Noel Perry, a senior consultant with research firm FTR Associates and principle of Transport Fundamentals.

While Perry concurs that rail linehaul is far more fuel efficient than truck, he maintains that this is just part of the energy equation. He pointed out that for optimal energy efficiency one must look at the complete supply chain from start to finish, including the local P&D function for which the flexibility of trucking is far more efficient than rail.

“When all factors are considered, most freight currently moving by truck would consume more energy if converted to a 100% rail move,” Perry explained. “Maximum energy efficiency might be gained from more transloading of freight between truck and rail, where truck is used for local transport and rail for the intercity movement. Government efforts should be directed at creation of more such truck/rail interchange terminals to make this option more accessible.”

Another fertile area of government action, according to Perry, would be to modify existing truck size and weight standards that have been frozen for over 20 years-- even as truck safety equipment has improved. “Both energy efficiency and safety would be improved by the operation of larger yet fewer trucks,” he said.

Though NRDC is on record against increasing truck size and weight, Lovaas stressed that it remains an area under careful study. “Though we don’t favor boosting truck size and weight for safety reasons, it is hard to dispute that there could be some substantial fuel savings with size and weight changes,” he said. “There is potential there, so we’re still looking at talking about possible solutions in this area.”