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Gathering Steam

The new energy bill is the biggest step forward in the long struggle to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. But before we get too enthusiastic and applaud too loudly for politicians on both sides, let's remember it's only a baby step.

The bill requires an increase in fuel economy to an average 35 miles per gallon for cars small truck, and SUVs by 2020. It requires very practical increases in efficiency, from banning 100-watt incandescent bulbs to more efficient appliances. As environmentalists have been saying for over 30 years, energy efficiency can reduce dependency on foreign oil, reduce global warming and other environmental threats caused by fossil fuel, and save a lot of money. By 2030 the economy will have saved a total  $400 billion on energy expenses, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a one of the most reliable sources of information on energy in the U.S. http://www.aceee.org/

This sounds wonderful, but remember that increased efficiency does not AUTOMATICALLY mean decreased energy use. In fact, efficiency without conservation is a dead end. If you triple your light bulb efficiency, but then leave 5 times as many lights turned on, you lose ground. If you improve automobile efficiency by the 40 percent called for in the bill, but then drive twice as far and twice as fast, your gain in efficiency is wiped out by your total consumption.

What's conspicuously and dangerously missing in the energy bill is a strong mandate for conservative, sensible use of energy.

If you doubt this, you need to remember that we've been down this path before. In 1974, when our country passed the first fuel economy rules, we had 105 million passenger cars that got a lousy 13.6 miles per gallon. Cars averaged 9,220 miles travel per year, and the average car used 677 gallons a year, for a national total of 71 billion gallons of fuel consumption. Thirty years later, cars averaged 22.5 miles per gallon, a tremendous improvement thanks to efficiency standards set back in the mid-1970s. But by 2004, we had a lot more passenger cars--136,400--traveling a lot farther, at 12,460 miles a year, burning 69 billion gallons total. And this small improvement in passenger car total fuel use got wiped out by the huge increase in the total number of vehicles and the SUVs that were used like family cars but were allowed to get lower mileage because of a loophole that exempted them from the fuel efficiency laws for cars.

But even if that notorious loophole for SUVs had never existed, and even if ALL vehicles, even huge trucks, had been required to get the same mileage as cars, we'd STILL be burning 131 billion gallons of fuel, or 25 billion gallons MORE than we burned BEFORE we passed those great laws to improve efficiency!

Overall, our motor fuel consumption increased by 59% while the population grew by less—37%, and the number of vehicles increased by a whopping 75%, from 134.9 million in '74 to 237.2 in 2004.

If fuel consumption continues to rise, it's going to affect the price, and everyone, businesses and consumer alike, will pay that price.

Obviously, the problem is that too many people are driving too many cars too many miles. It's as simple as that. No matter how efficient we are, if we drastically increase the number of vehicles and drive each one 3,000 miles farther, it's impossible to reduce fuel consumption. In fact, increased efficiency may push consumption higher, because of the law of supply and demand. If less is used, the price drops, but because the product is cheaper, more is purchased. Vroooom! Then, as consumption increases and supply is squeezed, prices bounce back up, and we get gas costing a dollar more than just a year ago.

This isn't rocket science. All the fuel economy and energy efficiency laws in the world, and all possible technological improvements won't seriously reduce or limit energy consumption unless there is at the same time a strong educational and advertising program to convince every to conserve a huge amount of energy, and to show them how to do it with very little sacrifice. It should go without saying that we also must develop mass transit, carpooling, and changes in our lifestyles that will reduce consumption. We must stop the kind of suburban sprawl that depends so heavily on automobile transportation.

This sort of campaign should take the form of massive public relations and advertising programs like those that convinced people to cut back on their consumption during World War II.

To anybody who objects "But this was wartime," you can bluntly respond: "And this isn't?"

December 20, 2007

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