SUV standards too little, too late

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Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe called them “minuscule improvements.”

Don MacKenzie of the Union of Concerned Scientists was a bit more colorful: “Fighting America’s oil addiction with these standards is like fighting lung cancer by smoking 49 cigarettes a day instead of 50.”

He’s right.

The fuel economy standards announced Wednesday for sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans are a step in the right direction – a baby step.

The increase in average fuel economy for these vehicles is so small – 1.8 miles per gallon – and takes so long to achieve – four years – that it is only expected to slow, not reverse, our annual petro fuel consumption.

It is expected to save 10.7 billion gallons of fuel over the lifetime of the vehicles to which it applies. That’s about two weeks of consumption for the U.S.

The truth is that U.S. manufacturers have long known how to make vehicles more efficient. Instead, they have consistently chosen to promote, build and sell heavier and more powerful vehicles.

Consider this: 25 years ago, the average vehicle accelerated to 60 mph in 14.4 seconds. Today, it’s 9.9 seconds. The average weight of vehicles then was 3,200 pounds. Today it’s 4,100 pounds, with some of the largest American SUVs topping 10,000 pounds.

Sen. Snowe recently reported that the U.S. sends nearly $500,000 per minute to foreign countries for oil. Time magazine reported last week that the U.S. comprises 5 percent of the world’s population, but we contribute 25 percent of its greenhouse gases.

Meanwhile, we base much of our foreign policy and military spending on assuring access to oil, staking our security and prosperity on unstable dictatorships.

The U.S. desperately needs leadership on this issue.

And what would such leadership look like? In 1973, Brazil embarked on a large-scale ethanol program. Over the past 30 years, more than 720,000 jobs have been created in rural areas growing sugar cane and converting it to ethanol.

Later this year, Brazil will be energy self-sufficient; all of the country’s vehicles will run on home-grown ethanol. And get this: As long as oil remains above $40 per barrel, Brazil’s consumers save money. Oil was selling for about $66 a barrel last week and climbing.

That is far-sighted, consistent leadership, the sort of leadership the U.S. has sorely lacked for more than 30 years. While Brazil was becoming energy independent, the U.S. was importing and consuming more and more oil.

As President George W. Bush announced recently, we are indeed “addicted to oil.” But the steps taken last week to solve the problem will leave us addicted for a long, long time.

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