WE STILL AWAIT a landmark declaration of independence from oil by President Obama. He hinted at it in a speech on the economy this week at Carnegie Mellon University, where he noted the "inherent risks'' of drilling deep for oil, and said it was time to "aggressively accelerate'' the transition to a clean energy future and not hand the next generation a nation run solely on fossil fuels. But in a speech of nearly 5,000 words, one critical word was missing: Conservation.
Without Obama's leadership on conserving energy, it is no surprise that Americans are keeping their foot on the accelerator of dirty energy. Even as he spoke, and even as the BP oil disaster continues in the Gulf of Mexico, sales of gas guzzlers zoomed up, begging the question, "what oil spill?''
According to The Wall Street Journal, sales of midsize SUVs shot up 32 percent and sales of large SUVs rose 34 percent in May, compared to May of 2009. That was double the 16 percent rise in car sales. The top two selling vehicles were pickup trucks, the Ford F-Series and Chevrolet Silverado, both of which get 15 miles per gallon in the city.
The level to which the BP oil spill does not matter was summed up this week by a Fort Worth Star-Telegram story on formerly idle workers who are back to logging 50-hour and 60-hour weeks at the General Motors SUV plant in Arlington, Texas. That plant makes Chevy Tahoes and Suburbans, Cadillac Escalades, and GMC Yukons, all of which get 12 or 13 miles per gallon in the city in their non-hybrid models. Demand has rebounded so strongly that the plant is on pace to build more than 250,000 such vehicles this year, surpassing its previous high of 240,000 behemoths in 2003.
Buyers are between the ages of 30 and 44, are well-educated and have average incomes well above $100,000 a year, according the story. Mark Clawson, Chevrolet's marketing manager for full-sized trucks, told the paper, "They're young families. They're affluent. They've done well and they want to show it.''
If this is still the way that young and affluent Americans display how they've done well, and if this is what we call putting America back to work, then we're in more trouble than we thought. The oil spill began in April, yet SUVs flew out of showrooms in May. Obama says that without a major change in energy policy we will "jeopardize our national security'' and "smother our planet.'' Yet, America still uses the SUV, with its overblown image of safety, as its security blanket, not worrying who or what the blanket smothers.
Whatever Obama is saying about energy, his pitches must become far more personal about our individual and collective responsibility to consciously conserve. He can talk all he wants about a comprehensive strategy of offshore drilling, nuclear power, ending tax breaks to oil companies and efficiency standards for homes, offices, and vehicles. But he continues to let us off the hook by saying "we can't end our dependence on fossil fuels overnight.''
But this is the moment for Obama to say that we can begin to end dependence overnight. He can start with one simple thing: increasing the federal gas tax. Because of political cowardice, the tax has remained unchanged since 1993 at 18.4 cents a gallon. Such taxes have gasoline at between $6.65 a gallon and $7.68 a gallon in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Families accept smaller cars and those nations, to borrow from Obama, have more aggressively accelerated into that clean energy future.
Obama said at Carnegie Mellon, "The next generation will not be held hostage to energy sources from the last century.'' He can start by making conservation a cornerstone of his treatise on energy. He can start by imploring Americans to get out of their SUVs.