25 mpg won't end US energy problem

I'm doing my bit to solve America's energy problem. I've just retired my nine-year-old eight-cylinder Ford Explorer and replaced it with a four-cylinder Subaru Forester. (Actually my Explorer retired itself, signaling impending demise with a knocking noise in the engine that suggested to alarmed motorists that an Army tank was tailgating them.)

On its first out-of-town run, the Subaru was plenty peppy and gave me 25 miles to the gallon, a saving for me and the nation of probably around 20 percent to 25 percent over the gas I'd have used in the Explorer. But before smugness sets in, I know that we've all got to do a lot more than make this kind of modest effort if we are to meet the challenge of increasing US energy consumption on the one hand, confronted on the other hand by heightened competition for the world's supply.

India and China, two countries whose economies are exploding, are gobbling up ever-larger quantities of oil wherever they can cut a deal, and placing huge new demands on the world's resources. At an American Enterprise Institute conference last month, former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham predicted that by 2025, today's global demand for 84 billion barrels of oil per day will have grown to 121 billion to 130 billion barrels a day. Electricity demand will have increased 100 percent to 125 percent and the demand for natural gas will grow 67 percent.

In an ideal world, the solution for the US is to become independent of foreign oil. The polar bears of Alaska could soon see drilling for new oil in their Arctic habitat, but this won't meet the needs of a nation that presently consumes much more than it can produce itself. Its own reserves are minuscule - less than 3 percent of the world's known total - but it uses 25 percent of the available global supply.

So long as its love affair with the gasoline automobile continues, the US can't do without foreign oil. The government could, however, require manufacturers to increase the efficiency of new vehicles by tightening rules requiring minimum mileage per gallon for certain categories, such as SUVs. The government could also encourage automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars by increasing the gasoline tax. This wouldn'tt be popular, but even with recent price hikes, gasoline in the US is still markedly cheaper than in many other countries.

Automakers have been responding to $50-a-barrel oil prices - and the prospect that the price will go even higher - by introducing hybrid cars that have electric motors supplementing conventional gasoline engines. These offer substantially better fuel economy, and are in demand by some new car buyers. Others, however, fear initial teething problems with this new technology and are waiting for the hybrids to prove themselves. There's also considerable interest in alternatives like diesel, natural gas, and ethanol. One problem is that while gas stations are omnipresent, motorists have to plan more carefully to top up with fuels like diesel and natural gas.

Automakers are spending considerable research and development money on the hydrogen car, a prospect that President Bush encourages. This car would be powered by a fuel-cell engine that combines hydrogen fuel and oxygen to generate electricity. It also has the added advantage of eliminating exhaust emissions. Once again, the question is whether there will be an adequate network of hydrogen filling stations. Such innovative research is clearly desirable as debate rages over the life span of existing oil reserves. Pessimists argue they will eventually dry up. Optimists argue there are still huge fields to be discovered.

As experts weigh the world's growing energy needs against known resources, they're examining renewable alternatives to the nonrenewable ones such as oil, gas, and coal. These include wind, solar, and hydro power.

There's even renewed interest in nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will probably press for US nuclear technology for India when he visits Mr. Bush next month. The conundrum is when to support nuclear development for peaceful purposes, as distinct from its use for nuclear weapons development in countries like North Korea and Iran.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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