WASHINGTON -- A coalition of Washington-based environmental and consumer groups has latched on to the Persian Gulf crisis in a bid to mobilize public pressure on the government and the auto industry to raise motor vehicle fuel-efficiency.
The Coalition for Fuel-Efficient Transportation plans to launch a nationwide advertising campaign this week to portray U.S. intervention in the Mideast conflict as nothing more than protection of foreign oil supplies -- supplies, the coalition argues, that would not be needed if automakers were forced to substantially improve fuel-efficiency.
"The United States is involved in essentially an oil war," said Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Sustainable Transportation and a coordinator of the nine-group coalition.
"We plan to hold the Bush administration's feet to the fire over it," he added.
Some political analysts, however, question the wisdom of mounting an environmental campaign at a time when the public is focused on midterm elections that seem to revolve around tax and economic issues.
"They're going right into an awful lot of political babble with this," said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "It may be a waste of time to try and interject something as serious as this, but what is really extraneous to the election at hand."
At the same time, he said, environmentalists would have to beware of alienating conservative supporters who might regard criticism of the Persian Gulf policy as unpatriotic.
"It's a very touchy issue," he said. "Some people may think that to say we're there because of oil sounds almost like a left-wing rallying cry."
But Scott Denman, director of the Safe Energy Communication Council, another coalition member, said information from grass-roots movements across the country indicated there was broad public support for mandatory energy savings.
At least two opinion polls -- in September 1988 and November 1989 -- indicated that almost eight in 10 Americans favored legislative action to raise fuel-efficiency to 45 miles per gallon, even if it meant raising the price of vehicles, he said.
The current efficiency level of 27.5 miles per gallon was set in 1975. Automakers argue that further improvements would jTC compromise vehicle safety -- a claim disputed by environmentalists.
The main thrust of the campaign, Mr. Denman said, is to rally public support behind legislation that will be resurrected in Congress next year to update the 15-year-old car fuel-efficiency standards.
Auto industry lobbyists and the Bush administration managed in September to kill a Senate bill that would have forced manufacturers to improve fuel-efficiency substantially over the next 10 years.
The bill aimed to increase average fleet efficiency 20 percent by 1995 and 40 percent by 2001 -- effectively raising the standard to about 40 miles per gallon in the next century.