Let's Get Serious About Gas Mileage

ENERGY conservation is back on the table due to the legions of Saddam Hussein. His conquest of Kuwait has underscored what some lonely voices have long been saying: America is too dependent on foreign oil. The facts are brutally stark. We are more dependent on foreign oil today than when the Arabs imposed an embargo on oil shipments in 1973. This year marks a historic first: we now import more than 50 percent of the oil we consume. And, according to the administration's energy analysts, this dependence will grow, not shrink.

Our dependence on foreign oil has led to a doubling of our consumption of oil from the volatile Persian Gulf region. It would be hard to image a worse region to be so dependent on for such a vital ingredient for our industrial economy. This region is racked by war and religious hatred, and dominated by barbaric dictators and unstable oligarchical rulers.

Many proposals are now being floated to deal with this crisis, from the prosaic recommendation of keeping our automobile tires filled with air to the ludicrous recommendation that we junk our industrial economy and return to a state of nature. There are prudent measures that go beyond hot air, and realistic policies that will reduce our growing dependence on foreign oil. To do this we must confront the central consumer of oil: the transportation sector.

Traveling around America now consumes more than 60 percent of the oil we consume, with the automobile consuming the largest share of the oil. Recently, the auto industry resurrected the gas guzzler in the form of super-high-performance luxury sedans, and the results show up in the falling fuel-economy statistics. The last three years we have seen the overall decline of the auto fleet's fuel efficiency. If we are serious about heeding the warning Saddam has so rudely given us, we must improve the fuel efficiency of our automobiles.

In 1975, Congress enacted a Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard. CAFE requires each auto manufacturer's new car fleet to meet certain fuel-economy standards. Despite the auto industry's dire warnings that CAFE standards were impossible to meet, the original CAFE legislation has contributed to a dramatic improvement in auto mileage. Under the law, auto gas mileage has doubled with no loss of performance or interior size.

However, the fuel economy standard is frozen in place at 27.5 miles per gallon. This standard was a worthy goal for the '70s and '80s, but our growing dependence on foreign oil and our environmental and economic problems demand significant improvements. A goal of improving fuel efficiency by 40 percent by the end of the century is realistic.

This improvement would conserve an estimated 2.8 million barrels of oil a day by the year 2005. This savings amounts to more than half of the oil shipped from Iraq and Kuwait combined.

The best way to improve the existing fuel-economy levels is to require auto manufacturers, both domestic and foreign, to achieve the same percentage improvement in their CAFE standards. By requiring all manufacturers to improve, we remove the incentive for backsliding from the current achievements, a real possibility as traditional producers of economy cars begin building high-performance sedans and family-size cars. Improved fuel economy would require the automobile industry to change their production plans, which are set several years in advance. For this reason, a new CAFE bill should provide the industry with time to meet the new goals. Rather than repeat the yearly benchmarks of the first CAFE bill, goals should be set in advance to give the industry time to adjust their production plans.

The 1980s were squandered as we were lulled into the false belief that our dependence on foreign oil was cost free. Saddam Hussein has reminded us that there is a steep price to be paid for our dependence - the airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines on the frontline in Saudi Arabia know the potential cost of that dependence. If we are a wise and prudent people, history will record that we heeded this warning by reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

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