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Monday, May 02, 2005

Our energy problem: We've stopped evolving

I had an interesting experience yesterday that got me thinking about our energy predicament in America. I was enjoying a cheap meal out at a local restaurant, and my table afforded a view of the street.

Outside, a massive car show formed in a parking lot across the street. It looked impromptu and chaotic, and featured mostly young people showing off dozens of 1970s-era American coupes and sedans. More arrived throughout my meal, until the street was literally jammed with cars and the sound of their stereos and engines. It was an entertaining scene and the cars were beautiful.

But when I paid my bill and walked outside, my nose knocked my brain in gear. The unfiltered exhaust from these vintage cars was palpable. A two-block section of four-lane street was being gassed to death by these cars, vaporizing a precious resource in the name of noise and shine.

I'm not saying it wasn't fun. But I don't think you can call it good, clean fun. Not anymore. Not in 2005, after 30 years of evolution in the internal-combustion engine.

But it got me thinking: Have we evolved?

There is food for thought in the news. The New York Times reported Sunday that demand for oil in America has increased by 38 percent since the last major gasoline crisis in this country in 1973. In contrast, European nations have reduced their oil consumption over the same time period, or at least kept it in check.

After the oil crisis in 1973 (when many of those car-show rides were new) this nation took major strides to increase energy efficiency, and our oil consumption declined. We required automakers to increase the average miles-per-gallon of the cars they produce. This nearly doubled the national vehicle efficiency to 27.5 mpg in 1987 from 14 in 1972. We also imposed a 55 mph speed limit nationwide.

As a result, gasoline consumption remained below the 1978 peak for 15 years, until the SUV came along. Since then, our gas consumption has been on a steep incline, and national fuel efficiency has slipped to 24 mpg. (Because SUVs are classified as trucks, they don't have to achieve the same average mpg as cars, even though people use them like cars.)

In passing the nation's new 2005 energy bill last week, Congress embraced drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and rejected an amendment that would have required automakers to increase fleet-average mpg. Even Michigan Democrats rejected the amendment, repeating the lie that higher mpg standards would make vehicles less safe.

Even the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, newspaper for one of the most oil-lathered communities in America, saw the falacy in this decision in an editorial published Sunday:
"...the Star-Telegram Editorial Board believes that Congress should support drilling for oil in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, because it is among the premier petroleum prospects in the United States. But drilling should be permitted there only if Congress also adopts significantly higher vehicle mileage standards.

"Eventually, the "end-of-oil" scenario looms -- the day when there aren't enough petroleum deposits left in the world to meet global demand. Those nations that have failed to diversify their energy supplies away from fossil fuels could experience alarming declines in their economies and living standards."

Or as Steven Nadel of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy put it so well in the Times: "We are in a boxing match, and the president keeps one hand tied to his back. We're punching with supplies and not using demand. We're at a disadvantage."

Which brings me back to the car show. The internal-combustion engine has evolved. Today's cars burn fuel much more cleanly than they did in 1970. Put a similar number of modern cars together and you probably wouldn't be able to smell them.

But a generation later, they still don't use fuel much more efficiently. We've saddled ourselves to old technology out of nostalgia and ignorance, when better choices are within reach. It would be like opting to watch streaming video over a dialup connection on a Mac Classic because we just aren't willing to learn how to use a Power Mac G5 and a cable modem.

Even logging companies, when they clearcut a forest, plant seedlings so they'll have more wood to cut 80 years hence. Today we are throwbacks, blindly hammering at the Earth for another tank of gas without even considering that it may be our last.

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