The SUV-Terrorism Connection

The now-axiomatic phrase, "September 11 changed everything," is nowhere more apparent than in America's travel habits. Fear of terrorism and economic recession have kept countless Americans grounded in the past several weeks. Taking a flight to Disney World doesn't sound so good when rumors of anthrax attacks abound, security lines at the airport are three hours long and you don't know where your next paycheck is coming from, anyway.

Still, Americans need to get from their point A's to point B's, and that means more driving. Total road miles are expected to climb by two percent next year, according to statistics released by the Energy Information Administration. More driving, of course, means burning more gas. But given that a large portion of the world's oil reserves lay in the Middle East -- a region that we're currently at war in -- most Americans would agree that it makes sense to increase our "energy security" by reducing dependence of foreign oil.

What to do? Some legislators are convinced we should tap into protected oil reserves here at home to reduce our reliance on Middle Eastern sources. Republican Senators James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Phil Gramm of Texas tried to tack on amendments to non-energy bills that would open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. (The Senate ultimately rejected their efforts.)

Many others, including large environmental organizations, have a different kind of solution. "Our reliance on foreign oil has traditionally carried significant economic and political risks," says Jason Mark, director of the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Berkeley, California. "Now that the issue is firmly back on the table, it needs thoughtful discussion."

Americans' dependence on foreign oil is enormous. Today, the U.S. imports more than half of the oil it needs, with 22 percent coming from countries in the Persian Gulf, mainly Saudi Arabia (Canada, Venezuela and Mexico supply the bulk of the rest). Two-thirds of the world's oil lay in the Middle East.

"We are never going to stop being reliant on oil. We only hold three percent of the world's oil reserves," says Kate Abend, a global warming associate at U.S. Public Interest Research Group. According to projections made by the Washington-based organization, by 2020, the United States will need 12.2 million barrels of oil per day to fuel its energy needs -- two-thirds of which are spawned by transportation.

To complicate the matter, the Environmental Protection Agency released its annual fuel economy statistics last week. Sadly, the reports show that the fuel economy of 2001 vehicles has plunged to its lowest level since 1980. The reason: America's ongoing appetite for gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.

When fuel economy standards were established in 1975, those for light trucks and SUVs were set at 20.7 miles per gallon. Because Congress has dragged its heels over the years and allowed standards to drop, today's SUVs average 14 miles per gallon. To feed them, America has bought an additional 18.4 billion gallons of gasoline. According to the EPA report, if recent trends continue Americans can expect nearly half of all vehicles sold in 2002 to be SUVs and other light trucks, deepening our reliance on oil.

"If people are concerned about dependency, they should press Congress to ensure that all vehicles go further on a gallon of gas," says Anna Aurilio, legislative director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "That's where the debate should be right now." Simply raising the light truck standard to that of cars would save the nation one million barrels of oil a day, according to Sierra Club, one of U.S.'s largest environmental organizations.

Robert Paaswell, director of the Transportation Research Center at City University in New York, puts it in even plainer terms. The U.S. imports roughly 12 percent of its oil from Saudi Arabia, he explains, and the added fuel demand created by SUVs over the last two decades, itself, equals that amount.

"Get SUVs off the road, and you could cut out Saudi Arabian imports," Paaswell says. "Looking at energy is the most patriotic thing we can do. We need to see energy in a totally different sense."

Steven Cohen, executive director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Columbia University, also believes oil dependency had led us down a thorny path.

"Saudi Arabia has allowed funding of these terrorist groups and we've been reluctant to take them on," he says, referring to how Saudi Arabia has frequently acted as the Taliban's checkbook -- in one instance, supplying the group with 400 new pickup trucks in 1998. "There's a question now whether the regime, which is modern in terms of economic outlook but traditionally religious, will survive as the U.S. pushes harder on anti-terrorist activities."

For the moment, the Middle Eastern oil flow has not been affected by American air strikes against Afghanistan. But that could change if our attacks kill a large number of Muslim civilians, fueling anti-U.S. sentiment or if we eventually target countries like Syria and Iraq, the latter of which is the world's seventh largest oil exporter. If Iraq were to slash oil shipments, the Saudis and United Arab Emirates combined couldn't make up for lost output.

"Whenever the world oil market sneezes, the U.S. catches a cold," says Mark, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, referring to how in an interdependent world economy whatever happens in the Middle East will inevitably affect the United States. "That's why we're saying the best strategy to reduce demand is by boosting fuel economy now."

This, Paaswell argues, would be a painless step to take. "We can cut down need without changing our mobility -- we don't have to give up anything other than SUVs. We were mobile before them," he says. "Congress should put forth an energy plan based on fuel efficiency."

Kate Simmons, a member of the global warming and energy team at Sierra Club, concurs. "Due to the recent national tragedy, the Senate needs to seriously consider energy legislation and craft domestic policy in a deliberate, well-reasoned way," she says. "The single biggest way to decrease dependency is to raise the standard."

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