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Unmentioned Energy Fix: A 55 M.P.H. Speed Limit
Published on Sunday, May 1, 2005 by the New York Times
Unmentioned Energy Fix: A 55 M.P.H. Speed Limit
by Jad Mouawad and Simon Romero
 

President Bush made it clear last week that he sees no quick fixes to the nation's energy woes. The problem has been long in coming, the argument goes, and so will the solutions. But if history is any guide, there is one thing he could do immediately: bring back the 55 miles-per-hour speed limit.

It has been done before. Along with record oil and gasoline prices, improvements in fuel efficiency and a lasting economic recession, speed limits helped curb fuel consumption for the first time in American postwar history between 1974 and 1984.


Even the least outrageous gasoline tax would have choked off some demand, and the money would have gone to our own government instead of being transferred overseas. Of course, that would have to involve personal sacrifice, which is off the table politically.

Robert K. Kaufmann
Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University
Of course, energy eventually became cheap again, the economy expanded and Americans became complacent and unwilling to make more sacrifices.

Instead of opting for small fuel-efficient cars, people switched to large sport utility vehicles and larger pickups. As drivers groaned and states fought for their right to speed, the limit was raised.

While oil consumption in most industrialized nations has either leveled off or declined, in the United States, oil demand has soared 38 percent since the first oil shock of 1973.

The Bush administration's focus over the last four years has been to increase the supply of oil and natural gas, which are also priorities for the energy industry, instead of finding ways to cut back on energy demand, which until very recently has been left out of the picture.

"We are in a boxing match, and the president keeps one hand tied to his back," said Steven Nadel, the executive director for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit research group in Washington. "We're punching with supplies and not using demand. We're at a disadvantage."

Other industrialized countries, especially in Europe, have been much more successful than the United States and have managed to actually lower oil demand, or at least keep it in check. That comes from higher diesel use and higher taxes. In France and Germany, a gallon of gasoline sells for as much as $6, with taxes accounting for about 80 percent of that.

Few politicians in America might risk ridicule or rejection by explicitly supporting higher taxes on gasoline, one of the surest ways to limit the nation's dependence on oil.

"Even the least outrageous gasoline tax would have choked off some demand, and the money would have gone to our own government instead of being transferred overseas," said Robert K. Kaufmann, a professor of geography at the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University. "Of course, that would have to involve personal sacrifice, which is off the table politically."

There are other ways to curb consumption that may be only slightly less challenging, analysts say. One would be to increase the average mileage per gallon requirement. After Congress passed legislation forcing automakers to act in 1975, average mileage almost doubled to 27.5 miles a gallon in 1987 from 14 in 1972. But it has since slipped back to 24 because of S.U.V.'s, and Congress shows no inclination to toughen the standards.

Another way to sharply reduce demand - and improve mileage - would be to encourage drivers to buy diesel cars, which offer as much as 60 percent more fuel efficiency, said Theodore R. Eck, an energy consultant and former chief economist at the Amoco oil company.

"The neat thing here is that this is off-the-shelf technology," he said. But the trade-off to diesel fuels also includes higher emissions of nitrate oxide, a pollutant that is responsible for smog.

In a recent speech, President Bush suggested that diesel cars might be made eligible for similar income tax credits as hybrid cars, which are quickly turning into best sellers with long waiting lists.

The present predicament behind high oil prices is quite different than the oil shocks of the 1970's and 1980's, which were a result of producers in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cutting oil supplies. Today, the price shock comes from rapidly increasing demand, driven largely by China, but also by the United States and its strong car culture.

After rising 33 percent in the last year, crude oil prices in New York slipped below $50 a barrel on Friday for the first time in 10 weeks. They closed down nearly 4 percent at $49.72 a barrel.

Still, Americans can expect to pay record prices for gasoline this summer. According to the latest national average compiled by the Energy Department, gasoline prices at the pump averaged $2.24 a gallon, up 42 cents from last year; they are expected to touch a record $2.35 a gallon this summer.

Polls show that higher gasoline prices are increasingly hurting Americans, and the president is pressing Congress to revive an energy bill that has been stalled for four years.

Since the last energy shock of the 1980's, the economy as a whole has shifted toward services and away from heavy industry and is now less dependent on oil than it once was. But that has been more than offset by the rise of oil demand for the transportation sector, which accounts for two of every three barrels of crude oil consumed here; gasoline alone amounts to half the nation's oil consumption.

"We've had this situation building up for years, and yet the focus continues to be on the very long term," said Shirley Neff, an adjunct professor at Columbia University and a former economist on the Senate Energy Committee. "We have to focus on demand and be more efficient in our energy use. We need something like an Apollo program for the transportation sector."

But restricting demand might also weaken economic growth, an unpalatable prospect for any government, especially at a time when some are already blaming energy costs for a slowdown in growth.

"It's true that there is a limit to what you could achieve through a traditional energy policy in one or two years," said Fridtjof Unander, an analyst with the International Energy Agency, which advises industrialized nations on ways to reduce their consumption.

The 55 miles-per-hour speed limit came as a result of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. The Nixon administration ordered states to lower their maximum limit to save fuel at a time when the first oil shock threatened to bring the economy to a standstill.

After steadily rising each year, gasoline demand suddenly stopped growing in 1974 and remained nearly flat for the next decade, keeping oil consumption in check.

Roland Hwang, the vehicles policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco, estimated the savings of the speed limit in 1983 at 2.5 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel, or 2.2 percent of the total use for these types of fuels.

But as gas lines faded from people's memories and energy prices went down, the federal speed limit was relaxed in 1987, allowing states to set higher caps of 65 miles an hour. Once more, gasoline consumption surged.

Smaller efforts today could make a difference. For example, driving at 10 miles an hour above the 65 miles-per-hour limit increases fuel consumption by 15 percent; inflating tires properly cuts gasoline use by 2 percent; keeping engines idle while in line wastes millions of gallons.

The trouble is that few drivers bother with these suggestions, Mr. Hwang said. "People are basically too lazy to pump their tires up."

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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