Energy Hog shows U.S. what not to do


WASHINGTON -- The Energy Hog, a villainous cartoon pig that consumes energy like candy and evokes little sympathy, is the chief symbol of America's notorious fuel-wasting habits in the Bush administration's multimedia campaign to exhort people to use less energy in all phases of life.

To the Energy Department and energy-efficiency experts who support the new conservation program, this campaign, launched in the wake of higher oil prices, is badly needed to persuade Americans to take sensible steps to save energy. It is especially targeted at young people 8 to 13 who can play an Internet game to try to stop the Energy Hog's nefarious energy-wasting antics.

To its critics, it is another voluntary government plan that is bound to fail, like President Jimmy Carter's wearing a sweater in the White House to try to induce people to turn down their thermostats. Conservatives scoffed at Carter for turning to symbolism to deal with energy problems, and the program was a political bust.

Jerry Taylor, an energy expert at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said higher oil and gasoline prices provide all the incentive needed for Americans to save energy. He branded the president's conservation program "of no consequence."

Gasoline demand is down, as are sales of sport utility vehicles, as the price of gasoline at the pump has soared to more than $3 a gallon in many communities.

"If they want a poster boy for the Energy Hog, they can put President Bush's mug up there for jetting around the country for useless photo ops to try to bring his poll numbers back up," Taylor said in an interview.

"What gets people to drive less is the high price for oil and gasoline," said Sidney Weintraub, an economist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. "That's what convinces people, not some pious words from the president."

Other critics said the administration is a late-comer to conservation, pointing to a 2001 quote by Vice President Dick Cheney: "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

Since then, Bush has gradually turned to conservation and energy efficiency to curb energy use in the face of high prices. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which damaged the nation's oil industry, he said last month that Americans should try to limit their gasoline consumption and turn down their thermostats.

Such calls for conservation were welcomed by Michael Eckhart, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy.

"It is five years overdue from the Bush administration," Eckhart said. "I think the government has been asleep on energy conservation since 1980."

Others say that while promoting conservation, the administration has yet to issue new standards on appliances, as required by law, and is seeking to close regional energy-efficiency offices that have pushed programs to save energy.

The administration is undaunted by the criticism and expresses high hopes for the ad campaign, in which it has joined energy-efficiency and other private groups.

It builds upon work done by the Ad Council and the Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of energy-efficiency groups and companies. The campaign's cost totals more than $1.2 million, with the Energy Department paying half the tab.

The Energy Hog was unveiled by the Ad Council as a "spokes-villain" about a year and a half ago, and the Energy Department's high-profile announcement last week secured the character's role as an up-and-coming celebrity.

There will be radio, TV and newspaper ads, billboards and extensive information on the Internet. The Alliance for Energy said there will soon be an Energy Hog game for adults on the Internet.

"Past energy conservation programs have failed because they seemed to be wrapped up in the idea of sacrifice," said David Garman, undersecretary for the Energy Department. "We are not talking about sacrifice, but about making smarter choices."

He said those "smarter" choices include preparing homes for winter by caulking and using weatherstripping, and buying appliances with "Energy Star" labels, a government stamp of approval that an appliance meets efficiency standards. Programmable thermostats automatically turn down the heat at night and raise it during the day, he said.

In a public service radio ad, Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman counsels Americans to get better gasoline mileage by keeping their cars tuned, changing the air filter, avoiding wasteful idling and going no faster than 60 mph.

"You have the power to make a difference," he says.

William Neikirk writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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