U.S. troops are risking their lives in the Middle East for a war that is at least in part about oil. Back home, gas prices continue to skyrocket.
America may be divided about this war, but we're in agreement about one thing: We need to find ways to cut our dependence on foreign oil. Our thirst for oil makes us reliant on the goodwill of dubious allies, and that compromises our national security. As Congress considers new energy legislation this spring, we owe it to the brave U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq to reduce the amount of oil we import.
The question is how. Some have suggested that we drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A proposal to drill in the refuge recently came before the U.S. Senate, and lawmakers considered the facts: Drilling would destroy one of the nation's last remaining pristine wilderness areas, an ecological treasure that is home to thousands of caribou, musk oxen and rare migratory birds. And it would provide only about six months worth of oil, which wouldn't become available for 10 years. For the second time in less than a year, senators listened to their constituents and rejected the idea.
A quicker, cleaner and safer way to reduce our oil imports is to use what we have much more efficiently. And since we use more oil to power cars than anything else, common sense tells us that we ought to make cars and trucks go further on a gallon of gas. The single biggest step we can take is to raise fuel economy standards for vehicles to 40 miles per gallon. That would save more oil than we import from the Persian Gulf and more than we could hope to find in the Arctic refuge, combined.
In addition to the benefits for national security, requiring Detroit to produce more fuel-efficient cars would dramatically cut global-warming pollution, make the air we breathe significantly cleaner and save consumers money at the gas pump.
Last week, the Bush administration paid lip service to the issue of improving fuel economy, while in fact doing next to nothing to address the problem. It raised the standard for light trucks by just 1.5 mpg by 2007 -- less than the automakers have already pledged to do themselves -- and created loopholes that make even that meager increase even more meaningless.
We can do much better. Technology exists that would allow the automakers to achieve a fleet-wide average of 40 mpg. Components like the integrated starter generator and the variable valve control engine can already be added to cars, trucks and SUVs of any size, without compromising performance, safety or affordability.
The Sierra Club has grouped these off-the-shelf technologies together into the "Freedom Options Package." A Ford Explorer that used the Freedom Options Package would get 35 mpg. If Ford's entire fleet used it, the fleet-wide average would be 40 mpg. Automakers have these technologies and have added some of them to a few models. Making the Freedom Options Package standard would give consumers the choice to keep buying their favorite models -- but now with much better gas mileage.
In fact, Washington would do Detroit a favor by raising fuel-economy standards. The Big Three are rapidly losing market share to companies such as Toyota and Honda, which have established themselves as the industry leaders in vehicles that use gas-saving technology. Anything that spurs American automakers to get into the race for the growing market in fuel-efficient cars is good long-term policy for the domestic industry.
Lawmakers will have an opportunity in the coming weeks to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and the war in Iraq makes that goal more urgent than ever. By raising our fuel-economy standards to 40 mpg, we can improve our national security, cut global-warming pollution and start building a safer, more sustainable world for our children. In these difficult times, that should be something we can all get behind.
Carl Pope is executive director of the Sierra Club, America's oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle