Gas Mileage and Caribou

The environmental lobby in Washington fought like wolves to save the caribou in Alaska's Arctic wilderness from oil drilling. It even strongly backed a presidential aspirant, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, in his threatened filibuster against the pro-drilling bill. The tactic worked. Last week, the full Senate didn't even get to vote directly on the measure.

The heart-string issue of saving wilderness was used by many environmental groups to raise money and gain members through mass mailings. Perhaps this opportunity to exploit such an obviously emotional cause helps explain why the same lobby has been far less successful, and less diligent, in pushing a seemingly mundane issue with far more impact on the environment than saving a remote wildlife refuge: raising the nation's average gas mileage.

Few Americans give money to push Congress on this planet-saving issue, or vote for leaders who would order automakers to make more expensive but more fuel-efficient vehicles. Yet everything from global warming to local air pollution, from US dependency on Arab oil to the nation's trade deficit depends on whether SUVs and light trucks will get 13 or 21 m.p.g.

Last month, a bill offered by Sens. Kerry and John McCain (R) of Arizona that would force a 50 percent increase in mileage standards failed. A much weaker bill, promoted by senators representing auto-industry states and farmers who want inexpensive pickup trucks, did pass. An attempt by one senator, meanwhile, to broker a deal on the oil-drilling and mileage standards never found traction.

The Senate's action Â- or nonaction Â- on these two issues reflects the public's own contrary notions on energy conservation and the environment. Making the self-sacrifice to buy more expensive vehicles and reduce both pollution and oil consumption is far more difficult than voicing support for the near-mythical ideal of a "pristine" Arctic wilderness.

Environmental leaders need to lead more than pander to Americans. The higher priority is persuading the Senate, as it nears a vote on an energy bill this week, to raise mileage standards for SUVs and light trucks.

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