MORRIS: How to Beat the "Gas Crisis"

In 1973 and again in 1979 this country was rocked with massive oil price hikes. Politicians of all stripes responded by devising a coherent strategy to reduce our dependence on imported gasoline.The federal 55 mph speed limit, according to Robert Stobaugh, an energy expert at the Harvard Business School, saved more than 200,000 barrels of oil a day. Vehicle efficiency standards almost doubled the energy efficiency of the average new car. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) provided the U.S. with a buffer against future foreign induced oil shocks. An aggressive program to develop not only high efficiency cars, but alternative homegrown transportation fuels like farm derived ethanol and sunshine generated electricity, promised long term energy security.Now oil prices are again on the rise. And what do today's politicians propose? The President, with the enthusiastic support of the Republicans, will sell 12 million barrels from the SPR. That's 16 hours worth of U.S. oil consumption. The President views this as a signal to the oil companies that they'd better lower their prices. In the longer term, it will be viewed as a signal to OPEC that we no longer care about energy security.In 1973, 36 percent of our oil was imported. Today that figure is close to 50 percent. Yet as part of his 7 year budget balancing proposal, Bill Clinton intends to reduce the SPR by 12 percent.Washington has abolished federal speed limits. Stobaugh estimates this will increase oil consumption by about 70 million barrels this year. The new transportation law contains a Republican inspired provision that prohibits the federal government from raising efficiency standards on vehicles or light trucks.California Governor Pete Wilson has suspended that state's mandatory electric vehicle development program. Republicans and Democrats alike are demanding an end to incentives for domestically produced renewable transportation fuels like ethanol.This is a truly pitiful display of ignorance and shortsightedness. What can we do, as citizens and consumers?As consumers, we can take two steps to offset higher gas prices.First, don't buy premium fuel. Five percent of cars sold in the U.S. require premium gasoline. Yet premium accounts for 20 percent of all gasoline sold. As Ford spokesman John D. Ochs told the Hartford Courant, "If you think you are doing your car a favor by feeding it octane higher than is stated in the owner's manual, not only are you wasting money on fuel, but you may be damaging your car." Switching to regular from premium will save you about 20 cents a gallon, more than the rise in gasoline prices.Second, obey the old speed limit. According to the AAA, driving at 65 mph requires 20 percent more gasoline than 55 mph. Driving at 75 mph consumes 45 percent more gasoline. Stick to 55 miles per hour and you will not only save lives, you will save five times more money each year than the $30 you would save if the Republicans are successful in repealing the 4.3 cent federal gas tax.As consumers we can reduce the short term impact of rising gasoline prices. But it is only as voters that we can reduce the long term impact of rising gasoline prices. In this election year we need to tell our politicians that we want a national energy strategy that offers us long term protection.World oil consumption is soaring. Shell Oil predicts the number of cars on the planet will increase by 50 percent, to 1 billion by the year 2000. The International Energy Agency predicts the price of oil will increase by 50 percent in real terms by the year 2005. By that year OPEC may once again have a stranglehold on the U.S. oil supply.In the past, Americans have been hard on politicians who took a courageous stand on energy issues. Look at what happened to Jimmy Carter when in 1979 he announced, "Too many of us tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption". Today, 40 percent of all new vehicles sold are not cars, but minivans and light trucks, up from about 15 percent in 1975. The energy efficiency of all new cars and trucks peaked at 26.2 mph in l987. It is now 24.7 and falling.It's hard for us to think about the long term. Gasoline prices will come back down, certainly by September and much sooner if Iraq is permitted to sell its oil. And then, for most of us, the issue will disappear, as it has for the last decade.But the oil crisis will come. And we must be prepared. Improving the efficiency of our vehicles, maintaining an oil reserve, and aggressively promoting domestically available, renewable transportation fuels are the ways to go. We understood that in the '70s. But we have lost our way. It is up to us, the voters, to tell our politicians to make a u-turn.

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