Cheap Gas is Cheapening Life

For a moment I felt like a car guy, a regular Tom or Ray Magliozzi.

There it was, my dream machine from another era, magically rolling into view as the climax to a TV tire commercial: a 1960-something Austin Mini, bright red, the same color as the one I used to own. Like they say, it really brought me back.

Not that the tire ad showed any fondness for this old model. In fact, the admeisters turned the Mini into a laugh prop, a primitive implement, an old shoe on wheels. The message was easily translated: Heard about those $25 tire specials? You won't find anything at this price which fits a real vehicle like the beautiful van and SUV we just paraded before your greedy little eyes. No, the cheapies are only joke tires for joke cars, like the 10-inchers on this pathetic British go-kart.

But the joke, it turns out, is on us -- the tire guys included. The small car, and therefore the smaller tire, is making a comeback, or at least clinging to some lane space next to Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.

The automaker-rubber-petroleum complex finds itself in a weird position lately. For the past few years, oil and gasoline prices in the US have been at historically low levels, comparable to those of the 1960s. Inflation has pumped up the numbers. But the $1 per gallon gas we had last year was actually a bigger steal than the 20-30-some cents per gallon of 30-40 years ago. And the same goes for even the $1.50-1.80 gas of today.

Nevertheless, the language of "crisis" is hanging heavy in the air. And like low thunder from an empty steel drum, historical echoes are bouncing around the American mind.

Mostly these echoes are reverberations from 1973, the only year since World War Two that the US took fuel conservation seriously. With consumers getting nervous about prices at the pump, the automakers aren't selling performance entirely and absolutely in terms of muscle. (SUV sales continue to climb, however.) Honda, for example, is marketing several fuel-efficient models this spring. But the new millennial Honda's conception of "high mileage" is too modest: One model at the top of the list is the Civic 2000 LX with 5-speed manual transmission, which has an EPA mileage rating of 32 city, 37 highway.

More serious is an effort from Toyota, an electric-gas hybrid called the Prius, now being market- and road-tested in selected areas, mostly in California. The Prius comes with a 1.5 liter engine and a nickel metal hydride battery which is recharged by the engine during operation, altogether eliminating the need for recharging stops. This hybrid configuration yields 66 mpg highway, says Toyota, and the car has an advertised range of more than 800 miles.

The Prius sounds pretty good. But in a sense, Toyota is going back to the future, or forward to the past. Compare the Prius to the easily maligned Mini of 40 years ago. My own Mini had a 1.25 liter four-cylinder engine which packed lots of power, and got well over 50 mpg, with nary a bell or whistle attached. This kind of performance was nothing exceptional among imports back then.

Or now.

Consider the auto fleet in Germany. Sure, it's the land of Mercedes and BMW, but according to one travel primer, most German cars get 33 mpg and more. German economy models run in the range of 47-59 mpg. Germans also travel less by car: an average 7,500 miles per year per vehicle, versus around 12,000 miles here. Of course, German drivers and non-drivers alike can get about nicely on the nation's highly developed public transit system, to which the German government has just allocated $70 billion for further improvements.

The German system is founded on a dualism: First, highly efficient cars and public transit allow Germans to cope with high gasoline prices. Last month, gas in Germany cost the equivalent of $3.66 US per gallon, which was well below the cost in Italy, France, and the UK. Second, high gasoline taxes, which account for the high prices, allow Germany to keep its public transit system in good shape and help keep the country's highly-urbanized environment from collapsing in smog.

On this side of the Atlantic, conditions have been more retrograde.

But some substantial improvements are approaching the starting gate. Within a few years, according to an Associated Press report, the Big Three automakers will introduce hybrids capable of around 80 mpg. Still, there's cause for skepticism. As with the Prius, the new hybrid designs -- for example, the Ford Prodigy -- are cut from the same cloth as the current crop of passenger cars.

The automakers still resist the necessary paradigm shift. They're not stupid. Like the handgun manufacturers, they know they must make concessions for cleaner air and fuel-efficiency, yet for business reasons they must preserve the automobile as we know it. They must make sure that the "autocracy" continues to dominate the transportation system, and that progressive transportation initiatives -- true "zero emission" cars, human- and solar-powered vehicles, vastly extended and upgraded rail service, and so forth -- are left in the lurch.

It's a mistake to think this is just a domestic issue. Many of the transportation decisions "we" make in this country -- how much gasoline we use, what price we're willing to pay for it, how and from where we acquire (steal?) it -- have global meaning.

With just a few percent of the world's population, the US consumes around 29 percent of the world's petroleum fuels through a three-part, mutually dependent system: commercial electric power plants, on- and off-road motor vehicles, and home heating. Our national gluttony here is well known. But the actual amount we consume is underappreciated. According to a Sierra Club study, America's fleet of 189 million cars, trucks, and buses eat up 132 billion gallons of gas and diesel fuel every year. Passenger cars and light trucks use 106 billion gallons of the total.

Despite the flurry of media stories about how "high" US gas prices threaten to end civilization as we know (if only!), US motorists are getting a real steal.

The Sierra Club has published a primer, Autos on Welfare, which looks at hidden subsidies for motor vehicles, roads, and other infrastructure. These subsidies include expenditures to offset the costs of road construction and maintenance, parking, pollution, noise, global warming, sprawl, national "security" for oil shipment routes and pipelines, and so forth. The estimates vary, but most of them -- from redoubtable sources like the federal Office of Technology Assessment and independent transportation specialists Brian Ketcham and Charles Komanoff -- are in the $5 range.

So what does the US motorist have to complain about? (Low-income motorists, however, do have a legitimate gripe about rising costs. But redistributive mechanisms -- from tax credits to the development of low-cost, ubiquitous public transit -- could undo this problem.)

All over the world, people have very real reasons to fear and loathe US transportation and energy policies.

To understand this, sample some historical petro-disasters, along with others in the making:

* On March 29, US news media triumphantly reported that Iran, the lone holdout among OPEC nations, had caved in to US pressure and agreed to boost oil production by 7 percent. Iran said the concession was made principally to avoid losing market share. (One Iranian spokesperson nevertheless gave one good reason for limiting production: the stupidity of glutting the market just as the Northern Hemisphere heating season was ending.) Iran knows as well as any upstart nation that it doesn't pay to challenge the US's self-conferred petroleum privileges.

Back in 1953, US agents leveraged a coup against Iran's democratically-elected president, Muhammad Mussadegh, who had dared to nationalize Iranian oil production, to the displeasure of American and British interests. This opened the way for, first, the compliant regime of the Shah, who terrorized the Iranian people with US assistance, and then the Iranian revolution.

* The ongoing US war-for-oil in the Persian Gulf has created untold suffering in that region. But oil procurement and transshipment methods elsewhere are troubling, too. For example, a proposed Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline would endanger fragile rainforests and river systems in central Africa and open indigenous forest-dwelling peoples to the violence and repression that usually accompanies this kind of Third World project. Some oil companies have already pulled out of the Chad-Cameroon scheme, but Exxon still is on board. Perhaps this is how the company is marking the 20th anniversary the Exxon Valdez disaster (March 24, 1989), in which 250,000 water birds, 5,000 sea otters, and numerous other victims were killed by a 11-million-gallon spill.

The US-based Earth Island Institute ( urges Americans to petition Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers to make the World Bank turn its back on the Chad-Cameroon pipeline.

But the Clinton administration hasn't been great on this sort of issue. For example, as we reported weeks ago, the Clintonites -- Occidental Petroleum stockholder and insider Al Gore chief among them -- are keeping mum on Oxy's exploration for oil on lands belonging to the U'wa people of Colombia. Last week a Colombian court held the project up, but if history is a guide, the court action will not stand.

The U'wa continue to resist Oxy, on their home ground as well as in the halls of the US government. Three U'wa children drowned February 11 when Colombian soldiers pushed a group of nonviolent blockaders into a river near the drilling site. This tragedy wouldn't have happened without America's thirst for oil and Oxy's hunger for profits. Expect more of this kind of thing, though, as US tastes for SUVs and vacation road-trips sharpen during the warmer months ahead.

* Oil explorers have no natural preference for warmer climes. They're happy to pollute the arctic with their presence, too.

Right now, as corporations and government officials talk about driving down prices by increasing supplies, the vast "reserves" (the word is soaked in assumptions about moral imperatives to extract and ultimately exhaust all minerals of proven utility) near the Arctic Ocean are being handed to Big Oil.

Far northern ecosystems are among the most fragile on earth. The arctic has already been harmed by 642 oil spills connected to the Trans-Alaska pipeline, according to a Greenpeace report. The icecap is melting, too, says Greenpeace, as parts of the western Arctic have warmed at three to five times the global rate. Yet oil-greedy gazes are trained on even the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Sometimes called "America's Serengeti" for its vast caribou herds and critical populations of musk oxen, wolves, golden eagles, and snowy owls, the ANWR has been contested for many years, but now is politically more vulnerable than ever.

* When oil is in the mix, US corporations and government officials don't want to hear about the little matter of human rights. Consider US relations with Saudi Arabia, the oil producing state par excellence and a world-class human rights violator. Amnesty International, the US State Department, and other groups point out that the Saudi government specializes in arbitrary arrests, torture, executions (even for "offenses" like apostasy, witchcraft, and purported sexual misconduct), and systematic floggings and beatings.

As writer Norman Kempster said in the Los Angeles Times recently, Washington doesn't hold Saudi Arabia to the same standard which is applied, at least rhetorically, to countries like Burma and Sudan. The algebra is clear: The more of a "strategic resource" a country possesses, the greater the US tendency to look the other way on human rights.

America's addiction to (still) cheap oil has formed this country's physical and moral landscapes. And the terrain is pretty rough, in both cases.

We can't seem to do things right even for self-protection. Every year, more than 40,000 people die on America's highways, and tens of thousands more are seriously injured. A generation after the Clean Air Act was passed, many American urban areas fail to meet federal clean air standards, largely because of auto emissions. New poisons appear regularly, too: For decades, the anti-knock additive tetraethyl lead harmed children especially; now the replacement for lead, MTBE, is raising alarms as it leaks from storage tanks into the water supply.

Routine auto and truck emissions constitute a nationwide aerial "oil spill" of incredible dimensions. Smaller, barely-reported fluid oil spills are another problem: The federal Environmental Protection Agency's Oil Spill Program boasts of limiting land and inland-waterway spills to "less than 1 percent" of the 250 billion gallons of petroleum products (and millions of gallons of mineral, animal, and vegetable oils) used in the US every year. But even one-tenth of one percent amounts to 250 million gallons of spill.

Much less do we seem inclined to clean up our transportation act for the welfare of others, as the foreign policy disasters outlined above indicate.

So have a good summer, and by all means take that drive to the Grand Canyon. The US government and the oil industry will see to it that your gas will cost you less than it costs the environment or the people of "supplier nations."

And that means gas that's cheap at twice the price.

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