Monday, July 07, 2008

Our fuel pickle...a "bi-partisan failure"

marjorie says...

The New York Times published a great retrospective/indictment over the holiday weekend that chronicles the unchecked "voracious consumption" of oil by the American public, due in large part to the failure of our politicians over the last couple of decades to force increased fuel economy standards for the automobile industry.

Check it out if for nothing more than the chart showing how dismally poor the standards in the United States are compared to other industrialized nations.

The Times at the outset reminds us that we already knew this was coming a long time ago:

Over the last 25 years, opportunities to head off the current crisis were ignored, missed or deliberately blocked, according to analysts, politicians and veterans of the oil and automobile industries. What’s more, for all the surprise at just how high oil prices have climbed, and fears for the future, this is one crisis we were warned about. Ever since the oil shortages of the 1970s, one report after another has cautioned against America’s oil addiction.

They're right, we were warned. I don't know about you, but I remember just about every moment described in this article.

The Times gives it to us straight: our problem is our love for the automobile, which is responsible for 70% of the oil our nation consumes. As a nation, we're addicted to driving big gas-guzzling vehicles.

"Although the road to $4 gasoline and increased oil dependence has been paved in places like Detroit, Houston and Riyadh, it runs through Washington as well, where policy makers have let the problem make lengthy pit stops," notes the Times. And Pete Domenici is then quoted saying it was a bi-partisan failure to act:

“Much of what we’re seeing today could have been prevented or ameliorated had we chosen to act differently,” says Pete V. Domenici, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a 36-year veteran of the Senate. “It was a bipartisan failure to act.”

And while our leaders insist over and over again that our problem today has much to do with rising global demand for oil in countries like China and India, the Times reminds us that we are the primary gluttons:

Home to only 4 percent of the world’s population, the nation slurps up about a quarter of the planet’s oil — and Americans’ daily use is nearly twice the combined consumption of the Chinese and Indians, according to an annual energy survey published by BP, the British oil giant.

Regarding the need for higher fuel economy standards, Pete Domenici gives a dire warning:

“We’ve got to fix it or our standard of living will change within a decade,” says Senator Domenici, who is retiring this year. “Oil was too damn cheap, it’s too high now and it’s going even higher. I hope I’m wrong, but the problem is, we can’t catch up soon enough.”

The article then gives a detailed overview of the failure of the federal government during the first Bush administration as well as that of the Clinton years to continue increasing fuel economy standards, which from 1975 through the late 80s had doubled. It was a bi-partisan failure, as Domenici notes, in the face of "furious opposition" from automakers in Detroit.

Incredibly, though, Michigan's Representative John Dingell, blames it all on the American public:

“The American auto industry has sold the cars people wanted,” he says. “You’re going to blame the auto industry for that or the American consumer? He likes it sitting in his driveway, he likes it big, he likes it safe.”

But as the article goes on to note, any attempts to raise fuel economy standards from the early 1990s straight through to 2005 were heavily lobbied against by domestic automakers.

And our own Pete Domenici, bless his oil-drilling heart, is pretty angry, giving it to Detroit straight:

“They all said to us: ‘Don’t change CAFE. It’ll come when it’s supposed to.’ That’s baloney,” he said.

UNTIL last year’s vote, Mr. Domenici was an opponent of new fuel-efficiency standards, a stance he now regards as a mistake. “We were like everybody else,” he says. “We should have been more active on CAFE sooner.”

With Detroit again seeing profits collapse as sales of big cars plunge, Mr. Domenici says he is worried about the survival of the domestic automakers.

“They talked a good research game,” he says. “But let’s face it, little was being done. They are suffering the consequences and could go broke just like the airlines.”

The Times continues:

What Congress didn’t or couldn’t do, the free market is now doing in the form of higher gas prices: forcing Americans into more fuel-efficient cars. Ms. Cischke of Ford says that in the last two months, “We have seen more of a shift in the market than in 20 years of CAFE. People are buying what they need.”

Very true. However, I would have preferred a better selection of fuel efficient cars to choose from when the market came calling.

cross-posted at the NMI