Public wants SUVs to guzzle less

A majority of adults say they'd be willing to drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle to conserve energy. But many also support drilling in Alaskan wildlife refuge.

The United States could soon get tough on those big, gas-hungry SUVs.

Americans, by a 2-to-1 margin, say that with gasoline prices up, they favor government action that would force automakers to boost the gas mileage of the wildly popular sport utility vehicles. Congress has firmly resisted attempts to boost mileage requirements for SUVs.

With petroleum imports rising, voters also say they now support opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil and gas exploration. Throwing open ANWR to oil drillers is a sensitive issue in this year's presidential race. Republican George W. Bush is for it. Democrat Al Gore is against it.

The newest Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll explored a broad range of energy issues with a cross-section of 803 likely voters in the US.

The survey probed the public's willingness to use mass transit and to buy smaller cars to save energy. It looked at who is to blame for rising prices. And it tested the willingness of Americans to use military power to keep oil resources flowing in times of crises.

There were some sharp differences - often along party lines - in the Monitor/TIPP poll, as well as broad agreements.

Some of the findings:

* Voters agree that the primary culprits in higher prices for energy are the members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Big oil companies and government policy makers also bear a heavy responsibility, voters say.

* By nearly a 3-to-1 margin, voters say that US friends such as oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are not doing enough to keep energy prices down.

* The No. 1 priority for dealing with US energy needs should be the development of new technologies, voters say. New technologies are more important than either boosting US oil production or conservation.

Growing public pressure to boost fuel requirements for SUVs comes as something of a surprise. For more than a decade, the vehicles have been family favorites for hauling everything from plywood from Home Depot to camping gear on holiday outings.

But the hefty vehicles drink lots of fuel. The mighty Lincoln Navigator that tips the scales at 5,746 pounds, for example, gets just 12 miles per gallon in the city, 17 on the highway, with its 5.4-liter V8 engine.

The more-popular Chevy Blazer - a mere two tons of steel, rubber, and plastic - gets just 15 miles per gallon in the city, 18 on the highway.

Under federal rules, automobiles from each manufacturer are required to get an overall average of 27.5 miles per gallon - twice what cars got in 1974. But as carmakers have downsized and lightened their vehicles to meet this standard, consumers who wanted more size and power switched to minivans and SUVs.

The federal government cooperated with this sleight of hand by classifying minivans and SUVs as "trucks," even though they were being used primarily as passenger vehicles. Since the standard for trucks was only 20.7 miles per gallon, that overall requirement was easier for manufacturers to meet.

The impact on America's gasoline usage, however, was significant. Average vehicle performance in the US has fallen steadily from a high of 26.2 m.p.g. in 1987 to only 24.6 m.p.g. in 1998. Today's shortages and higher gas prices are one result.

On this issue - as on several energy issues - there are often differences of opinion among voters.

A college history professor in California, one of those surveyed in this poll, says she is sympathetic with those who buy the larger vehicles.

"It's not really fair to criticize SUV owners," she says. "I don't care what anybody's driving as long as they're not driving over me.... Sometimes people need a larger car for extenuating circumstances."

While 63 percent of likely voters in this poll favored boosting the mileage requirement for SUVs, 29 percent disagreed.

Sentiment to boost mileage requirements was highest among liberals (77 percent favor higher mileage rules), Democrats (74 percent) and those between the ages of 55 and 64 (75 percent). Support for changing the law was weakest among conservatives (only 54 percent favor a change), younger Americans (59 percent), and Republicans (52 percent).

Another surprise was the solid support (54 percent to 38 percent) for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ANWR's coastal plain could hold as much oil as Alaska's highly productive Prudhoe Bay.

Yet the refuge also shelters polar and grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, and many other species in one of the most pristine areas in the US.

Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, conducted the poll for the Monitor. Mr. Mayur says divisions are sharp on this issue:

"To drill or not to drill the Arctic refuge is the same as asking are you a Bush supporter or a Gore supporter."

Other poll responses:

Who is responsible? The public points the finger primarily at OPEC (34 percent), but oil companies (28 percent), and the government's energy policies (21 percent) also shoulder the blame for rising prices.

A sales representative in Conyers, Ga., says higher prices should have been foreseen with a growing economy, and Gore should have tackled it. Ultimately, she said, "oil companies are probably more responsible than anyone else."

Will fuel prices hurt? Voters are almost evenly split on whether rising fuel prices will hurt the economy. About 49 percent say yes, 45 percent say no.

Bush or Gore on energy? When it comes to energy policy, voters think Governor Bush will probably do a better job making sure the US has sufficient energy supplies. They prefer him on this issue by a 44 percent to 33 percent over Vice President Gore.

Pay more for cars? By 57 percent to 38 percent, Americans say they would pay $1,000 more for a comparable vehicle that had greater fuel efficiency.

Buy smaller cars? Most Americans - 75 percent - say that with rising gas prices, they would be willing to drive smaller cars to achieve better mileage.

Use mass transit? By a 62 percent to 27 percent margin, Americans say they would use mass transit or car pool to save fuel.

Use military force? In times of crises, Americans would be willing to use US military power to keep oil supplies flowing - but the issue is clearly divisive. Those favoring military force (48 percent) are nearly equaled by those who oppose (43 percent).

Staff writer Sara Steindorf contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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