Declare Fuel Independence: Increase Mileage Standards

MOMENTUM IS building for serious congressional action to raise our nation's automobile fuel economy standards for the first time in two decades. Maryland's senators need to carefully evaluate our options. Here's something to think about:

More than half of the oil used in the United States is imported, and 23 percent of that comes from the Persian Gulf region. Domestic production of oil has been falling steadily since its peak in 1970 and will never be able to match what we import. Even the opening of a huge oil field such as that in the coastal plains region of Alaska would only briefly reverse this trend. We need to face it: We depend on foreign oil.

This dependence will continue as long as we choose to ignore our situation and allow consumption to rise. Two-thirds of our oil is used for transportation, so this must be the primary target to tackle.

A relatively modest increase in fuel economy goes a long way. If every vehicle were 2 miles per gallon more efficient, the amount of oil saved would be the equivalent of that imported from Iraq. An improvement of 5 mpg is equivalent to our Saudi oil imports. An increase of 9 mpg would equal imports from the entire Persian Gulf.

The last time that the United States made a change of this magnitude was after the oil shocks of the 1970s, when the average economy of a new car improved by 7 mpg in six years. Now the United States must do it again, and keep doing it, but this time as a preventative measure, not in response to faraway events.

In the '70s, the cost to the country was enormous, and we only imported 21 percent of our oil, far less than the 50 percent that we import today or the 60 percent that is predicted for 2020. What would the cost be then?

Our growing hunger for oil has been fueled by the steep increase in light truck and SUV market share over the last 20 years. When the fuel economy standards were introduced in 1975, light trucks (including SUVs and minivans) were less than 20 percent of the new vehicle market. They now make up more than half of all new vehicles sold.

This significantly influences average fuel economy, because the federal fuel economy standards for them are much lower. The difference between the requirements for cars and light trucks presents a loophole through which manufacturers can supply the public's demand for large, powerful vehicles.

In the current economic climate of cheap gasoline, there is low consumer motivation for economy and, consequently, little manufacturer enthusiasm for providing it. U.S. manufacturers already produce vehicles that have a very high fuel economy, but in some cases they are not even released onto the domestic market. Instead, they are sold overseas, where high fuel taxes make fuel economy a consumer priority.

A federal commitment to work toward oil independence must also be a commitment to reduce transportation consumption. Increased fuel economy standards have to be part of this package if independence is to have any chance of success.

Reinhard Radermacher is a professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Environmental Energy Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park. Matthew Cowie is a graduate student in the Center for Environmental Energy Engineering at the university.

by Reinhard Radermacher and Matthew Cowie

Originally published in the March 12, 2002 Baltimore Sun Op/Ed page

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun

Published March 12, 2002