Desert Tours

ERNEST B FURGURSON

February 24, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON. — Washington.--THE MORNING AFTER the president introduced his new energy policy, Washington was buzzing about what he considers a dirty word: conservation. Whether because of his long personal immersion in the oil business or his anti-regulation ideology, Mr. Bush refuses to consider saving energy in the most direct, proven way -- by improving gas mileage for American automobiles.

Sen. Richard Bryan of Nevada and 34 of his Democratic and Republican colleagues have introduced a bill to raise auto efficiency standards, a matter that has taken on new urgency since the Persian Gulf war began. Last week, they offered hard figures to show how higher mileage requirements already are saving millions of gallons of oil a day. Spokesmen for the Big 3 auto companies explained why it can't be done, and the Bush administration explained why it shouldn't.

The dialogue at the hearing on the Bryan bill wasn't all that original. Both sides were working from a familiar script, with only minor variations from last year and indeed 17 years ago. Amid the first energy crisis back in 1973, people such as Lee Iacocca, then with Ford Motor Co., insisted that while foreign firms could build more efficient cars, Detroit could not. Such cars would not sell, so American companies could not make them.

In fact, some of the best-selling cars in U.S. history, starting with the Model T Ford, were lean and thrifty. Efficient cars were not selling in the early Seventies because Detroit was advertising muscle and luxury, which means more profits. It was not interested in making lean and thrifty cars.

At that time, however, long lines at gas stations persuaded voters and thus Congress that better mileage made sense. Foreign cars were selling -- because they went farther on a gallon. Congress approved a 1975 law that set efficiency standards gradually moving up to today's 27.5 miles per gallon.

Detroit could do it, after all. That law is the most effective conservation measure ever passed. It saves American drivers 2.5 million barrels of oil every day, and $40 billion a year. It drastically cut the percentage of oil imported from the Persian Gulf.

But as motorists got used to $1-plus gasoline, Detroit gradually tempted them back to bigger engines, at bigger prices, and average fuel economy has actually slipped backward in the past RTC two years. Just before this war, we were importing a higher percentage of oil from the Persian Gulf than in 1973.

Mr. Bush has tried to tell us the United States would have mounted a major military operation against any nasty dictator who invaded any innocent neighboring country, but our recent history contradicts him. There may be added reasons for our war in the gulf, but a half million American troops would not be there if the region produced kumquats instead of oil.

Thus common-sense legislators have suggested that perhaps we ought to use less gasoline, and import less oil, so we would not consider the Persian Gulf so vital to our interests. The Bryan bill would raise auto efficiency standards 40 percent by 2005. That would save more than 2 million barrels a day, which the senator says is four times what we imported from Iran and Kuwait before last summer. It would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 500 million tons a year.

Since Mr. Bush had to make the hard decision to send troops to war, we might assume he would embrace such conservation, so oil would not take Americans to war again. Indeed, his own Energy Department recommended higher miles-per-gallon standards, but after the White House rejected his advice, Secretary James Watkins said he preferred letting "market forces" cut demand. Then when he heard congressional reaction, he said "some kind of" mileage boost might be acceptable, if it didn't mean much smaller cars.

The president's program calls for more drilling for more oil, offshore and in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. It suggests more light-bulb efficiency, and nods politely to alternate forms of energy. But its basic prescription is more of the same -- the same dependence on imported oil, the same gambling on new sources in untouched areas, the same massive buildup of the greenhouse layer warming the earth's atmosphere.

Last year, Congress came close to passing a bill to boost miles-per-gallon standards. The current measure is gentler on industry, affording more lead time. Under all today's circumstances, it's hard to imagine that this one won't pass and go to the president's desk.

If the president refuses to sign it, a lot of American troops will wonder justifiably how soon they start their next group tour of the great Arabian desert.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun. His column appears on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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