April 4, 2008

The White House Oilmen

By Javier Sierra

For millions of consumers the weekly trip to the gas station is starting to feel like a visit to the dentist.

As I write these lines, the average price of gas in the US has hit a record $3.28 per gallon. In 2007, inflation rose by more than 4 percent, due in large part to the increase of energy prices.

According to a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 72 percent of respondents said the increase in gas prices has caused them economic hardship. Sixty-four percent of them said they have had to reduce their car use and 5 percent say they are no longer driving.

But, according to the survey, the effects are expanding to other areas. Thirty-three percent said they have reduced their food and drug expenses because of expensive gas and 57 percent that they are afraid they will have to in the future. Almost half have cut down on their heating and electricity expenses for this reason.

During a recent Sierra Club discussion group with Latinos, one of the sentences most often heard from participants was, “every time I put gas in my car, I get upset.”

Frustration is palpable throughout the country because we all get to pay for the federal government’s incompetence, the car industry’s negligence and the greed of Big Oil, whose profits in the past seven years have topped $100 billion.

To alleviate your frustration and save at the pump, let me give you a few tips:

• Drive Smart! When you drive aggressively, you waste gas and put others at risk. Observe the speed limit, avoid rapid acceleration and braking, and maintain a constant speed on the road.

• Keep Your Car in Shape. A well-tuned car burns less gasoline. So make sure that you get your oil and air filters changed regularly, and that your tires are always properly inflated.

• Change Your Commute. Sitting in rush hour traffic burns gas and gets you nowhere. If possible, adjust your work schedule so that you avoid rush hour traffic. Even better, and if your employer allows it, think about telecommuting.

• Carpool. Carpool or use ride-share programs if you can. This might also enable you to shorten the time of your commute by using High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes.

• Use Public Transportation. Look into the public-transportation options in your area, and use them as much as possible.

• Go for a Ride or Walk. Rather than drive your car to the corner store or a friend’s house, walk or ride your bike there.

The most effective step to save gas, however, is in the hands of the automakers —to raise the efficiency standards for all the cars and light trucks built in the US. The Energy Bill passed in December forces Detroit to increase the efficiency of its vehicles by 40 percent. But this industry possesses the necessary technology to do much more. The following technologies should be present in every vehicle built in the US:

Advanced ignition systems can save up to 25 percent in gas by switching the engine off every time the car is stopped and idling, and restarting it when you put your foot on the gas.

The use of lightweight materials, such as steel, aluminum and plastic, can save up to 30 percent of fuel.

Continuously variable automatic transmissions allows for an infinite number of gear ratios for the most efficient combination of engine speed and wheel speed, saving up to 20 percent of fuel.

High-tech engines, including four-valve cylinders with automatic deactivation, can save an additional 20 percent.

The auto industry and its allies in the White House have opposed all these changes.

Despite this challenge, and thanks to improvements in efficiency in the 1970’s, the rate of traffic fatalities has dropped by 50 percent.

Excuses, and cheap oil, have been exhausted. The Bush administration must abandon its policy of increasing extraction of fossil fuels and commit itself to leading the way to a future of clean, renewable sources of energy that end to our oil addiction.

But, as The New York Times said in a recent editorial, for this to take place, “the nation has to replace the oilmen in the White House.”

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Visit www.sierra club.org/ecocentro

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