It's been fun to watch the fallout from President Bush's shocking announcement last week that the U.S. is a nation of oil addicts. After U.S. automakers and Middle East leaders politely phoned to ask what the hell was going on, the administration quickly back-pedaled, saying he "didn't mean it literally."
But the genie was out of the bottle, and Ford Motor Co. felt moved to splurge $2.5 million on a Super Bowl ad yesterday, featuring Kermit the Frog croaking praise for the hybrid Escape SUV. (Is an ad for the Expedition featuring Miss Piggy far behind?)
Hype and green-washing aside, if the President's allegorical remarks jump-start a debate about how to beat our oil addiction, I'm all for it. Any serious discussion about decreasing oil use will take us straight to those who make the machines which consume this addicting scourge: the automakers.
It's been over a decade since Washington did anything to improve auto efficiency, most notably increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Yet compelling automakers to make more efficient vehicles would do more than anything to beat our oil addiction. As the Sierra Club notes,
Increasing the fuel efficiency of automobiles is the biggest single step the United States can take to reduce consumption of fossil fuels and the threat of global warming.
We have a tool to achieve this goal in the form of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Raising CAFE standards to 45 miles per gallon (mpg) for cars and 34 mpg for light trucks (trucks, vans, and sport utility vehicles) is the biggest single step we can take to curb global warming.
The technology is clearly here to boost car efficiency. But our leaders have been willing to let standards languish at an industry-average of 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks -- and even then the auto execs can break the law without consequences:
In 1997 all three US automakers violated CAFE standards for light trucks. Rather than improve their products, the Big 3 have waged a lobbying offensive in Washington DC, and have successfully influenced members of Congress to pass one year freezes on the law. 1997 was the third year that such a freeze was passed.
The Oil Addict Caucus has no real response to this, other than the old libertarian schtik that CAFE standards -- any standards -- are an evil government intrusion into the "free market." The argument is that the market will take care of itself: oil prices will go up, people will start buying smaller and more efficient cars, the problem is solved. Recent plummeting SUV sales -- the biggest cause behind the recent massive job lay-offs -- are held up as proof of the market's wisdom.
Let's leave free-market fantasyland for a moment, shall we? First, even with climbing oil prices, consumers still aren't being offered cars as efficient as they could be -- and they're still rolling out ads for bottomless gas pits like the Hummer, which have no business being on the road.
And second, what if oil prices were to come down? Remember what happened in the 1980s? After the energy crisis of the 1970s convinced everyone to check out more efficient cars, in the 1980s oil prices shot down, thanks mostly to a momentary lull in global energy politics. And the age of the gas-guzzling -- and high-polluting -- SUV was born.
To beat oil addiction, we have to go straight to the source. Is anyone willing to take on Big Auto -- which, by the way, has largely moved production down South -- and Big Oil?