Oil victims - again

by Carolyn Chase


My little escape from big oil has been foiled, at least temporarily. General Motors called to inform me they would be recalling and retrieving the Saturn EV-1 electric car I had been leasing for mere seven months. As of this writing, they have still not determined if there will be any fix for the what they are saying is a problem with the electric charger - or if they will offer replacement EVs. Annoying and depressing, yes. An example of bad timing to be sure. I hadn't been to a gas station since I got it.

Arriving back on the gasoline scene, gas price hysteria has overtaken the media, politicians and quite understandably those who are utterly dependent on the price of gas to survive. This is not new news.

Michael Shames, Executive Director of the Utility Consumers Action Network (UCAN), has followed the vagaries of energy politics for years, "Both market forces and the absence of market forces have combined to hit California - and the country - where it hurts. The two obvious and most effective solutions are to fix the broken market in California by injecting competition into the dysfunctional wholesale and retail markets in California and then to begin the painful process of weaning ourselves off of gas guzzlers. We developed an unfortunate dependence upon gas-guzzling SUVs, vans and pick-ups over the past ten years. US drivers overlooked fuel efficiency as a factor in purchasing our cars and OPEC picked up on it. As soon as the Asian market started firing on all pistons again, OPEC seized on the increased demand for oil to make US drivers pay for the "luxury" cars that we'd purchased. And so now Americans are paying dearly for that luxury."

While just last month politicians were headed toward supporting tax increases for big transportation projects chasing congestion relief, this week it seems we can't even afford to fill 'er up. Pols seeking to ride the populist passions of those who believe in a god-given right to burn any fuel at any time - at a completely subsidized cost of course - are now busy touting gas-tax cuts.

Unfortunately, fuel tax cuts will do nothing to solve the real problem: lack of competition and consumer choice in the use of transportation alternatives, including fuels. I am not even being offered a replacement for my EV-1, even though I'm willing and able to pay for it.

The consequences of oil dependence go far beyond draining consumers pockets at the pump. Oil dollars account for $50 billion of our national trade deficit (17 million barrels a day). Oil has extensive environmental impacts that begin with drilling and continue through to burning it in our cars and light trucks. The military costs include defending oil-producing nations as we did in the 1990 Gulf War. Increasing demand for oil creates a constant pressure to drill in remaining wilderness areas, particularly the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the coasts of California, Florida and other states.

March 24, 2000 is the 11th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The beaches still permeated with oil serve to remind us that our dependence on oil carries environmental consequences. Fill up your tank to see a fraction of the economic consequences.

Twenty-five years ago, Congress did respond to an oil crisis by enacting what has proven to be the most successful energy savings measure it has ever adopted-- the program setting Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for cars and light trucks. By requiring automakers to double the average fuel economy of cars between the late-1970s through the late-1980s, Congress ensured that we would be saving 3 million barrels of oil every day. Without these savings, we would be importing at least 1.5 million barrels a day more oil than we currently do.

But when Congress passed the CAFE law, it did not require automakers to steadily improve light truck fuel economy, because these vehicles comprised only 20% of the vehicle fleet and were primarily work vehicles. Today, SUVs and other light trucks are nearly 50% of the new vehicles sold, driving down average fuel economy and driving up demand for oil.

Since 1996, by attaching riders to Department of Transportation funding bills, Congress has bowed to auto-industry pressures to block new fuel economy standards. While the standard for cars is at 27.5 miles per gallon, the standard for SUVs and other light trucks lags behind at 20.7 miles per gallon.

Higher standards would translate into additional dollar savings for consumers. A substantial increase in CAFE standards would result in a net increase of 244,000 jobs nationwide, with 47,000 of these in the auto industry, according to a study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Finally, improved standards will reduce pollution, including cancer-causing hydrocarbons. America's cars and light trucks are responsible for 20 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide pollution, which causes global warming.

There are two key efforts that make sense for policymakers right now: The bi-partisan Boehlert/Dicks Clean Car letter is circulating in Congress seeking signatures from members who support higher CAFE standards. As of this writing, unfortunately, no one from the San Diego region has signed on. This is a no-brainer and they should all sign. In California, the Governor and legislature needs to hear support for renewable fuel approaches and the especially the Zero Emissions Vehicle program. Visit www.cleanpledge.org for more info.

Temporary fuel tax relief is a sham. It is a knee-jerk response that will be ineffective and should be killed quickly. Legislatures should focus on developing State policies and programs that will eliminate total dependence on imported petroleum-based fuels and create choice in the fuel industry -- sustainable market competition is the only real and permanent solution to this problem.