Break the Chain of America's Oil Dependance
It's time to Break the Chain -- the chain of America's dependence on oil. How? By building better, cleaner, and more efficient cars, right here in America -- cars that save energy, cost less to operate, protect the American economy, drastically cut down on smog and global warming pollution, and promote America's energy security. (See NRDC's July 2004 fact sheet for in-depth information.)
Q: My car gives me the freedom to get around, so what do you mean when you say break the chain?
A: The United States' dependence on oil, much of it imported, chains the nation's economy, security, and even foreign policy. That chain needs to be broken, and the most direct and effective way to do that is to encourage American automakers to harness existing technology to build more efficient automobiles. We use far more gasoline than we have to, because our cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks waste it. And it's not that more efficient technology doesn't exist; it does. It's that instead of applying available technologies to improve gas mileage, Detroit is intent on sticking to business as usual. By doing that they're costing consumers more money in fuel, causing more smog and global warming pollution, and making Americans and the American economy ever more dependent on oil.
Q: It seems like cars are getting better and more efficient every year. Aren't they?
A: Not in terms of gas mileage -- average fuel efficiency in the United States dropped between 1988 and 2000, despite significant advances in engine technology. The reason is that SUVs don't have to meet the same fuel efficiency standards as other cars, so Detroit has devoted the benefits of added engine efficiency to supporting heavier and heavier vehicles. We need to do better than that because our dependence on oil, the majority of it from overseas sources, makes us economically vulnerable to the whims of oil producers.
Q: Won't new vehicle technology take years to develop? Or worse, is this just pie in the sky?
A: No. According to the National Academy of Sciences, existing technology is already on hand that can drastically increase fuel efficiency -- so much in fact that within 10 to 15 years, the average new vehicle could get nearly 40 miles to the gallon, without sacrificing vehicle performance or safety. Other analysts say the potential is even greater. And research is ongoing, so future technological advances will only improve mileage.
Q: What kind of technology are we talking about here?
A: Lots of things, some easy to understand by non-engineers, some much more complicated. They include variable valve control engines like the ones Honda uses on its VTEC engine -- the engine that lets Honda lead the pack in mileage; lightweight aluminum engines like the ones used on some Chevy Cavaliers and Oldsmobile Aeros; five-speed automatic transmissions like the ones offered on the Ford Explorer; and lightweight -- but still sturdy -- aluminum or high-strength steel that is just as safe or even safer than existing materials. Ford has successfully tested the design, and Volvo and Audi have already gotten it to market. These are improvements to conventional vehicles. But a whole new type of vehicle takes fuel savings even further -- gasoline-electric hybrids, which combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor. Hybrid sedans get about 50 mpg. Toyota and Honda already have hybrids on the U.S. market.
Q: Will more efficient cars be less safe?
A: Not at all. Safety is a function of good design, not vehicle weight. Although auto companies use safety as a marketing point for SUVs, in fact SUVs are on average less safe than midsize cars, and they're three times more likely to roll over than regular cars, according to the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Honda Civic, a compact car, is one of the safest cars on the road (the Honda Civic is now available as a hybrid). With better rules for safety and fuel economy we could enhance both at the same time.
Q: If the point is to stop using so much foreign oil, can't we just increase American oil production?
A: No, because the United States doesn't have nearly enough oil, and what we do have is very costly to extract. We import more than half our oil, and drilling more domestically won't keep that figure from going higher because most of the world's low-cost oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf. Companies like ExxonMobil or Conoco spend roughly $6 to $8 to produce a barrel of oil from the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea, while oil producers in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait spend $1 or less. The Bush administration portrays drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the answer to our problems. But drilling the refuge, besides destroying critical wildlife habitat and creating an environmental mess, would be very expensive. And in the end, the Arctic Refuge doesn't contain anywhere near enough oil to make a lasting difference -- oil from the refuge would take 10 years to reach market and would likely equal just a six-month supply before running out. The only way to break the chain of our dependence on oil is to use less. And that means that Detroit has to make efficiency an engineering priority, not just a sales pitch.
Q: Cars create global warming pollution. Shouldn't we tackle that problem first?
A: Breaking the chain of oil dependence will also help fight global warming, because carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas causing temperatures to rise, is caused by burning fossil fuels, including oil. So cars that burn less oil also create less global warming pollution.
Q: What happens if Detroit just keeps doing what it's doing?
A: That's definitely what U.S. automakers want to do. They've been lobbying hard -- and successfully -- against raising fuel efficiency. Their business-as-usual stance costs us dearly, both financially and security-wise. American drivers used more than 120 billion gallons of gas in 2002, at a cost of $186 billion. If fuel economy doesn't improve, fuel use for passenger vehicles will increase more than 50 percent by 2020, to almost 190 billion gallons per year. And the amount of oil we import will rise as well, from half to nearly two-thirds.
We can't afford to let that happen. So we need to use our consumer power to persuade the Big Three automakers to start using their know-how to make better, more efficient, safer, cleaner and less gas-guzzling vehicles. And more than that we have to use our political power to get our elected leaders to press Detroit for change.