Oil and the Home Front

THE Bush administration is loath to say the Gulf crisis is about oil. But the crisis has again started Americans thinking about oil - in particular, their dependence on imported petroleum. Oil imports from the Mideast have tripled since 1983, making that volatile region a still relatively small but growing source of oil for the United States. In 1989, the region contributed 12 percent of US supply, according to the World Resources Institute. Overall, the US gets about half its oil from overseas.

Security concerns and trade imbalances are strong reasons for reducing reliance on foreign oil. The environmental problems associated with dependence on fossil fuels are another incentive to cut back, not just on imported crude but on overall consumption of oil. But are there practical ways to go about this?

Talk about super high-mileage vehicles, alternatives to gasoline, and electric cars has often been met with skepticism. It was visionary stuff, removed from daily life. But that is changing.

Cars like the Geo Metro, a compact made by Japan's Suzuki Motor Company and sold in the United States by General Motors, can get 50 miles or more per gallon. The main obstacles to putting more such vehicles on US roads are the ingrained, mutually reenforcing preferences of buyers and sellers. The cult of the fast, powerful car has resurged in recent years, much to the industry's delight.

Through the 1980s, fuel economy fell as a selling point in tandem with falling gasoline prices.

Pump prices since Iraq's invasion may have brought economy back to mind. But prices will probably have to go even higher before car-buying habits change. Rising gasoline taxes will do their part.

Meanwhile, individuals can make their own statement about reducing reliance on imported oil by choosing cars with outstanding mileage - or at least by choosing the higher mileage version of already popular models.

Alternatives to gasoline are more problematic. They involve fundamental changes in car design, fuel-distribution systems, and attitude. Still, alternatives are accelerating beyond the experimental stage, though their current use is spotty.

Methanol, produced most economically from natural gas, and ethanol, made from grain, offer some advantages in cleaner burning and less risky sources. But they are probably transitional fuels at best. Compressed natural gas is cleaner still, and is now getting a wider test in fleet vehicles. Hydrogen may be an attractive fuel way down the road.

Electric vehicles are becoming more practical, as battery technology improves and range expands. GM is working on an electric car that could be on the market by the mid '90s.

The Gulf crisis is giving an impulse to these developments. But their underlying logic goes beyond the crisis to the inescapable need for renewable energy sources and the purer environment they'll bring.

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