U-Turn on Gas Mileage

If the federal government can pay for TV ads that link drug use to terrorism, it can also pay for ads linking terrorism to the selling and buying of vehicles with low gas mileage.

That's just one action the Bush administration and Congress might consider in response to the news that the average fuel economy for US cars and trucks fell to its lowest level in 22 years with the 2002 models.

Weaning SUV owners and the automakers from those kind of gas-guzzlers won't be easy. Not everyone sees clearly how such individual decisions have global implications.

But both buyers and sellers, with incentives or penalties from government, could help make the US less dependent on foreign oil producers that use their oil wealth to support groups that support terrorists.

Unfortunately, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week rejected a measure that would have forced automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of SUVs by 30 percent over eight years. Such a measure would have made up for Congress's mistake in creating a loophole whereby SUVs and other vehicles classified as light trucks need not meet gas-mileage requirements similar to those of cars.

Many auto trends are going in the wrong direction. Ford Motor Co. has backed off a pledge to raise the fuel economy of its SUV line 25 percent by 2005. General Motors dropped a pledge to sell 1 million gas-electric hybrid vehicles by 2007. And despite many technological advances in autos, the average vehicle has nearly twice the horsepower and is about one-quarter heavier than in 1981.

Most of that negative news is due to the popularity of sport-utility vehicles, minivans, and pickup trucks, which now make up nearly half of all vehicle sales. Vehicles now account for about 40 percent of US oil consumption and one-fifth of its carbon-dioxide emissions.

The US cannot wait a decade or more for automakers to roll out clean-burning hydrogen-powered vehicles. The repercussions of the higher gas mileage on terrorism and the environment must be weighed against the difficulty and costs of bringing down that mileage. Congress and Mr. Bush must grab the wheel and make a sharp U-turn on fuel economy.

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