I read a nice opinion piece a few days ago in the Buffalo News (1). It was written by John Paul Rossi, a history professor at Penn State Erie. The essay addressed the need for increasing the fuel efficiency standards in the U.S. Professor Rossi writes:
One of the reasons the United States is so dependent on foreign oil today is that Americans have replaced reasonably fuel-efficient cars with vans, pickups and SUVs, which average 21 mpg.
This trend can be reversed by providing motor vehicle manufacturers and American consumers with incentives to purchase more fuel-efficient vehicles and discourage purchase of gas guzzlers. A study by the Consumer Federation of America points out that “an increase of 5 miles per gallon in fuel efficiency of (the United States) domestic fleet would save about 23 billion gallons of gasoline each year” — cutting oil imports by an estimated 14 percent.
The problem is that there has not been much incentive for Americans to purchase vehicles with higher fuel efficiency. Some of you purchase fuel efficient vehicles because you think it is the responsible thing to do. I applaud you for that. But gas has been cheap for a long time, so the public has not willingly made a mass move to higher fuel efficiency. We tend to feel safer driving around in oversized vehicles. But now gasoline is starting to become more expensive, which will lead some to pay more heed to fuel economy as they purchase new vehicles. Yet so far, gasoline prices of nearly $3/gallon have not been sufficient to cause a signficant dip in our fuel consumption. It is therefore unlikely that $3/gallon gasoline will cause a substantial increase in the average fuel economy.
The essay continues:
Additionally, the federal government should impose a progressively increasing sales tax on cars, vans, pickups and SUVs that average less than 27.5 mpg, which is the current average mileage for the U.S. passenger car fleet.
I agree that the government needs to be more proactive here. They mandated that we use increasing amounts of ethanol in our fuel, but they haven’t really addressed the core problem. Bush, in his State of the Union address, complained that we are “addicted to oil”. What would be the fastest way to cure such an addiction? It is very unlikely that we can produce enough biofuels to allow us to continue driving around in gas guzzlers. The root of the problem must be addressed. The government must substantially increase fuel efficiency standards if they are serious about weaning us from foreign oil.
Lessons from Europe
An article last year in The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) explains how Europeans have learned to live with gasoline prices that are now $6-$7/gallon in some cases.
A gallon of gas in Amsterdam now costs $7.13, compared with just $2.61 in America. The contrast in prices and environmental policies – and the dramatically different behaviors they inspire – signals a widening transatlantic energy gap. And it raises the question: Does Europe offer America a glimpse of its future?
Indeed, while Europeans have learned to cope with expensive fuel (mostly due to taxes), there’s scant evidence yet that US drivers are adopting their conservation tactics.
The following graph from the article tells the tale:
That is a shameful graphic. Right now, the average fuel economy in the European Union is over 40 miles per gallon. Japan is even better at over 45. The U.S. lags far behind with an average in the mid 20’s. Yet American society as a whole is unlikely to adopt conservation tactics until prices become painful. Even then, they are more likely to scream in vain for politicians to punish Big Oil in the hope that this will force gasoline prices back down. But the CSM story indicates that the way we have designed our society is also a big part of the problem:
But efficiency alone does not explain the huge disparity between fuel-use figures on either side of the Atlantic: European per capita consumption of gas and diesel stood at 286 liters a year in 2001, compared to 1,624 in the US, according to IEA figures.
The nature of cities plays a role, too. “America has built its entire society around the car, which enabled suburbs,” points out Mr. Dings. “European cities have denser centers where cars are often not practical.”
I lived in Europe from 1999 to 2001, and I typically paid over $4/gallon for gasoline. I coped by getting a very fuel efficient car. I didn’t feel unsafe, because I was not surrounded by big SUVs on the autobahn. I rode my bike whenever possible. If you travel to Europe, you will notice a tremendous difference in the way they use energy. Large vehicles are practically nonexistent. The highways are full of small, very fuel efficient vehicles. Diesel cars, which have a greater efficiency than gasoline cars, make up a large proportion of the automobiles. The cities are compact, full of bicycle paths, and surrounded by farmland. Public transportation is ubiquitous. There is little suburban sprawl. People walk or bike in large numbers, not only conserving energy, but also resulting in a very healthy population. Standards of living are very high.
We Americans tend to learn that “The American Way” is the best way. In some cases, this may be true. But as far as energy utilization, we provide a terrible example. We should look to Europe as a guide in this instance. But we also need some strong leadership on this issue. As the article puts it:
“Societies adjust over decades to higher fuel prices,” says Jos Dings, head of Transport and Energy, a coalition of European environmental NGOs. “They find many mechanisms.”
The problem is that we do not have decades in which to solve this problem.
1. ” Fuel-efficient cars would go a long way toward solving the oil crisis.” Buffalo News, April 16, 2006.
2. “Gas prices too high? Try Europe.” Christian Science Monitor, August 26, 2005.