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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK–Gasoline Prices We Have Met the Enemy

Everyone is pointing fingers these days over the rocketing cost of motor fuel. Truckers caravan in protest to the nation’s capital, while the Republicans blame the White House and the White House blames the Republicans.

Consumers are screaming at the oil companies, while the oil companies pass the blame to the OPEC nations, and the OPEC nations keep blaming each other.

But to really see who’s to blame, Americans have to take a good, hard look at ourselves. In the immortal words of the old “Pogo” comic strip, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

You don’t need to be an economic analyst to understand what’s happened. You only need to look around yourself while driving the freeway. What do you see? Big cars. Really big cars.

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Big, gas-guzzling cars , the likes of which we thought we’d never see again on American roads after the 1973 gas shortage crisis that was caused by the Arab oil embargo.

Following that gas crisis , and a second in 1978 , Americans turned to driving smaller, more economical cars, a trend that sent the “big car” U.S. auto industry reeling. During that time, the federal Energy Department says the annual per capita use of petroleum in the United States went from a peak of 31 barrels of oil in 1978 to 24 barrels in 1983.

With the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s, however, fuel consciousness began to wane. By the end of the ’80s, American drivers were racking record amounts of auto travel each year. And with all that driving, we started demanding bigger cars again , much bigger cars.

High on the consumers’ wish lists were sport utility vehicles, monstrous four-wheel-drive demons supposedly designed for off-road work. Of course, the closest most SUVs get to off-roading is splashing through chuckholes after a rain.

Don’t get me wrong. I think SUVs have their uses, and I have a legitimate reason for desiring one myself. When I’m not editing this paper, I do volunteer search-and-rescue work and tend to carry a lot of equipment.

Nevertheless, I can still stand aloof and see that we American drivers have been played like suckers by the auto and gas industries. Today, SUVs are offered not only by long-time truck manufacturers but also by luxury automobile makers; the market has expanded from rural drivers to suburban adventurers and, now, to affluent road warriors. Today, SUVs and similar light trucks make up one-third of the vehicles on the road.

Because they are considered light trucks, not cars, SUVs are allowed to burn 33 percent more fuel than passenger cars. In fact, Congress has steadfastly refused to require higher fuel efficiencies for SUVs. For that matter, just five years ago Congress tried to roll back fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars.

Not surprisingly, our gains in energy efficiency have plateaued since the early 1980s, according to the Energy Information Administration, and our reliance on foreign oil has mushroomed. In 1973, we imported only about 30 percent of our oil needs; today about 60 percent of the petroleum consumed in the United States is imported.

Less than 20 years after the loudest wake-up call ever sounded, we Americans find ourselves addicted more than ever to our cars and the black gold on which they run. Like street pushers, the oil producing countries, gasoline refiners and auto manufacturers lured us into a surreal sense of overconfidence with cheap and easy access to the source of our addiction.

Now that we’re hooked again, the suppliers are running up the cost by holding back. No one dare call it an embargo this time; after all, the Mid-East Arab countries are now our friends and allies.

So if you’re looking for someone to blame for this fuel price crunch, you only have to look in your own rearview mirror. In there you will find the enemy, and he is us.

Hill is editor of the Business Journal.

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