TIME FOR AN OIL CHANGE

The legislative engines are sputtering back to life over whether to pump oil out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President Bush and congressional Republicans have reendorsed the plan, both as a job-creating economic stimulus and as a matter of national security.

Weighty rationales, both - though for environmentalists, they'll never outweigh the importance of preserving a pristine wilderness.

For most Americans, however, these points demand a close look. The economic-stimulus argument seems a stretch. The jobs would come gradually, and they wouldn't do much for the sectors of the economy hardest hit by the current slowdown. The energy component of national security mainly involves reliance on foreign oil. With only 3 percent of the world's known oil reserves, the US has to import. What it could get from ANWR is estimated to be enough to power America's vehicle fleet from six months to a year. It could satisfy US industrial thirst for oil for a somewhat longer period. That's not insignificant, but the long-term impact on oil imports would be relatively small.

A better way to offset oil from abroad is suggested by the EPA's latest survey of gas mileage in the new- car and -truck fleet. Only 6 percent of the 2002 vehicles get more than 30 miles per gallon. Many of the still-popular SUVs and small trucks drop well below 20. Congress ought to revisit legislation to make SUVs subject to the same mileage standards as cars.

It could also come up with incentives to encourage Americans to move toward higher-mileage vehicles. And it could further boost research and development of promising technologies, such as fuel cells, which could move society decisively away from the OPEC-dependency of the internal combustion engine.

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