After Bingeing on Oil, the Country Has a Hangover

By Warren Brown
Sunday, May 4, 2008

It's morning after in America. Our bacchanal affair with oil has ended. But too many of us are too dazed to notice, too trashed to clean up the mess.

The only politicians seemingly aware of our condition are a lame-duck Republican president and a prophetic congressman, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.), who for years has been a voice crying in the wilderness against our wanton consumption of oil -- "our addiction to oil," as President Bush once put it.

We now are paying the price, as much as $4 a gallon for regular unleaded, a stiff tab for Americans hooked on cheap gasoline but a relative bargain for motorists in the rest of the developed world where gasoline is taxed heavily to control consumption.

Like most addicts, we knew we had a problem. But we compensated with rationalization, becoming remarkably adept at finding excuses to justify the next fix.

"We need it," we told ourselves, and we did things to buttress our claim.

We built suburbs with mini-mansions miles from urban work centers. We demanded idyllic neighborhoods peopled with clones of ourselves, a human selection afforded by a vast network of roads and the vehicles to drive them, all leading to and from genteel cul-de-sacs untouched by the unpredictable democracy of mass transit.

Oil fueled our ambitions and dreams. The more we drank, the happier we felt, the bolder we acted. We believed in the eternity of oil, the everlasting cheapness of it; we looked askance at anyone who questioned our faith.

In all of this, we had enablers, politicians who supported our habit, told us not to worry, that there was more cheap oil to be found somewhere -- in another country, perhaps, if not our own. They said they would fix whatever needed fixing.

They did this in 1975 with approval of the first Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rule mandating efficiency standards for companies selling cars and trucks in America. The car companies obeyed, doubling the average technical fuel efficiency of their vehicles at a research-and-development cost totaling billions of dollars.

We thanked our enablers for that gift and thanked them all the more because they asked us -- we voters and consumers -- to do absolutely nothing to pay for or otherwise support fuel conservation.

Thus, we did what consumers do: We consumed.

The 1975 CAFE rules made driving cheaper. So we drove more, more than doubling the vehicle miles driven in the United States from 1975 through 2006, according to the Transportation Department. The more we drove, the more we demanded comfort, safety and speed in driving. The car companies, of course, were more than happy to meet our demands -- at a price. It did not matter. By 2001, at least 50 percent of all new vehicles bought in the United States were pickup trucks, sport-utility vehicles or vans.

The good times rolled and horsepower roared -- the more, the better. As a result, all technical gains in fuel efficiency made from 1975 to 2006 were wiped out by consumer behavior.

To fix that problem, Congress last year turned once again to the car companies to boost fuel efficiency. And, again, Congress asked voters and consumers to do nothing.

But the market has its own rules, its own discipline, especially when it comes to supply and demand. Global demand for oil is growing at speedway pace. Oil producers are having a hard time keeping up, a task made all the more difficult by politics and violence in many countries that have exploitable oil reserves. Prices rise, as they are doing now, when demand exceeds supply.

"But there is a silver lining for us in all of the pain at the pump," said Michael J. Jackson, chairman and chief executive of AutoNation, America's largest retailer of new and used cars and trucks.

America has been saying it wants to kick the oil habit. "But we didn't begin to change our behavior until pump prices passed $3.50 a gallon for regular unleaded," Jackson said.

Consumer reaction to high gasoline prices is showing up in the showroom, according to Jackson and other industry sources. Sales of consumptive, high-horsepower vehicles, especially big trucks, are down. Sales of smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles are soaring. That is why Jackson, a car dealer and staunch advocate of energy conservation who has advocated higher federal gasoline taxes, is upset with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and one of the Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

McCain and Clinton (now, there's a ticket!) are advocating a summer moratorium on federal gasoline and diesel taxes, they say, to help ease soaring prices.

But their proposal "is pandering of a degree that is incomprehensible to me," Jackson said in an interview. "These are the same people who spoke so passionately about conservation and global warming. What they're proposing is completely antithetical to environmental goals. It's completely nonsensical. Why are they doing this?" an exasperated Jackson asked.

One can only guess. Maybe the answer is in McCain's suggestion that we'll be in Iraq for 100 years where, as Jackson said, "we've been paying one hell of a price for oil in blood and treasure."

Here's hoping that isn't the case, that the gas-tax moratorium proposal is little more than campaign hijinks. It's morning after in America. We can't afford another binge. Turning away from addiction is painful enough. Hitting absolute bottom before deciding to turn away could be substantially worse.

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