Oil addiction needs a long-term solution and short-term relief

In his State of the Union message, President Bush starkly and accurately called the nation’s dependence on oil an “addiction.” But while the president took at least the first step toward a cure by acknowledging the problem, Congress has done little to follow suit.

In his State of the Union message, President Bush starkly and accurately called the nation’s dependence on oil an “addiction.” But while the president took at least the first step toward a cure by acknowledging the problem, Congress has done little to follow suit.

The word “addiction” should be instructive: One can’t remedy an addiction by trying to get more of the addicting substance or by focusing exclusively on long-range plans that enable the addiction, with all its attendant dangers, to continue for the foreseeable future. Yet the House has voted only on misguided attempts to open new areas to oil drilling and on long-range research since gasoline hit $3 a gallon.

Meanwhile, our addiction not only continues to raise costs for our constituents, it threatens our national security. Our addiction makes us subject to the whims, plotting and unstable politics of foreign regimes, puts our economy at risk over time as worldwide demand rises, and worsens our balance of trade.

So it’s imperative that we find ways to limit our demand for oil. Dealing with domestic supply can provide only very limited, short-term relief, often at a very high environmental cost. Demand is the primary problem, and demand is where we must direct our solutions.

And if we’re going to address demand, transportation is the place to look for savings. About 60 percent of the oil consumed daily by Americans is used for transportation, and about 45 percent is used for passenger cars and light trucks.

So what can we do? Clearly, relying on the marketplace isn’t working, and it won’t be sufficient even at current prices. That’s because while, as a society, we all want to limit fuel consumption significantly, as individual car buyers we also want our vehicles to have other attributes. So if I want an SUV — and I drive one — and automakers choose not to put a fuel-efficient one on the market, there’s nothing I can do as an individual consumer to signal my disappointment. This is a classic market failure. The government has to act.

And if Congress actually wants to reduce U.S. oil consumption — as opposed to just being interested in looking as if we want to cut consumption — then we can’t punt the issue to the administration. The Energy and Commerce Committee has reported out a bill that would give clearer authority to the administration to raise fuel-economy standards, but that bill is as much a way to avoid the issue as to address it.

If we just give the administration authority, we know what will happen. We will get a long rulemaking process that produces tepid results. Our politically appealing call for strong and immediate action will be met with the faint echo of weak results over a protracted time period. That’s what happened in the recent administration rulemaking for light trucks.

If Congress wants to do something, then Congress needs to use its constitutional policymaking authority and take action. We should raise fuel-economy standards to 33 miles per gallon by 2015. That’s not a number plucked out of thin air. That’s a carefully calculated number using the methodology laid out by the National Academy of Sciences in its report on fuel economy. And that number was calculated assuming gasoline at about $2 a gallon; the number would be higher at current prices.

We could raise the standards while reforming the fuel-economy rules, as the administration has suggested, so that different standards could be set for each different vehicle size — as long as the average for the entire light-vehicle fleet were required to increase to 33 miles per gallon from the current 25.

And requiring higher fuel economy would not reduce safety. The National Academy report clearly stated that, written properly, fuel-economy standards can be tightened “without degradation of safety.” Newer technology makes it possible to increase fuel economy without reducing vehicle weight, as even a representative of the auto industry acknowledged at a Science Committee hearing.

Moreover, unlike new oil wells, which get depleted over time, the oil savings from fuel economy only accrue.

So we in Congress have a very clear choice. We can take largely symbolic action and sit back and fiddle while Americans burn more gasoline, or we can pass concrete, effective legislation that will save consumers money while significantly reducing U.S. oil consumption. It ought to be obvious which choice to make.

Boehlert is the chairman of the House Committee on Science.