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$4 gas – it's our fault

By John Dillin Thu May 29, 4:00 AM ET

WASHINGTON - One of my favorite newspaper comic strips as a child was the Katzenjammer Kids, about two mischievous boys who were always getting caught red-handed and spanked. The final frame of the cartoon often showed a wily kid named Rollo, who would point to the wailing Katzenjammers and explain to their tutor, "They brought it on themselves, Miss Twiddle!"

Today, with gasoline prices climbing past $4 a gallon, and diesel near $5, I am reminded of the Katzenjammers. As Rollo might say, "We brought it on ourselves, Uncle Sam!" More than 30 years have passed since the first "energy crisis" pummeled the American economy. It hurt. People lost jobs. Prices for gasoline went way up, people waited in long lines to refuel, and some service stations even ran dry.
What have Americans done since? Not nearly enough. And that explains some of our current distress. When the first crisis struck in the 1970s, Congress, the White House, and the Big Three automakers all initially responded. Cars were downsized. Engines were made smaller and more efficient. Highway speed limits were cut to 55 miles per hour. Tough, new gas mileage requirements were imposed. All this got results. Average fuel economy for new cars and light trucks rose from 13.1 miles per gallon in 1975 to 22 mpg in 1987. Automakers cut the average weight of vehicles from 4,060 pounds to 3,221 pounds. Engine horsepower declined from 137 to a more thrifty 118.
The effect was so dramatic that it scared the living daylights out of the oil giants such as Saudi Arabia and Iran by showing them that Americans could get along without so much of their expensive oil. Supplies soon rose and prices dropped. Then America went back to sleep. By the 1990s, we were again buying larger cars and new, gas-hungry SUVs. Speed limits went back up to 65, 70, and 75 miles an hour. We fell in love with powerful engines. We admired speed and the towing power to haul big boats that had outboard motors the size of truck engines. More recently, China and India began importing millions of barrels of oil every day. We were no longer so important to the oil cartel.
Now oil prices are breaking records. And Americans aren't prepared.
While the USA snoozed through the 1990s and 2000s, I remember a few people trying to shake us awake.
John DeCicco, an engineer and fuel efficiency specialist, told me in the early 1990s that we could boost the mileage of US vehicles by 20 percent, even 30 percent, just by using the technology we already had. But people weren't listening.
A few political leaders also sounded the alarm.
In 1991, Sen. Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada urged Congress to mandate more-efficient cars and trucks. He called it a matter of national security. Senator Bryan's bill would have required that gas mileage rise to approximately 34 mpg in 1996, and 40 mpg in 2001.
But Congress sat on its hands. Not until last year, with gas prices again soaring, did it mandate 35 mpg by 2020.
It was too little and too late for this crisis. Instead, the actual gas mileage of cars and light trucks produced last year was only 20.2 mpg – worse than it was in 1987. The Environmental Protection Agency says that in 2006, vehicles sold in America were the heaviest, fastest, and most powerful of any since it began collecting data. A typical engine, just 118 horsepower by 1987, now boasts 223 horsepower.
There are exceptions, of course. The Toyota Prius actually exceeds the 40 mpg standard that Bryan wanted by 2006.
When Senator Bryan fought for his energy bill 17 years ago, then Energy Secretary James Watkins accused proponents of "misleading" the public on gas mileage. Mr. Watkins said that imposing higher mileage rules would cost jobs at auto factories.
He noted: "The president [Bush 41] has said: 'I will not do anything to force our people out of jobs….' We better take it easy before we impose additional burdens on our society by gimmicks [like higher mileage rules]."
With hindsight, just the opposite is happening. Today, hundreds of thousands of US jobs are at risk at airlines, auto plants, restaurants, hotels, amusement parks, trucking companies, and other industries that benefit from cheap fuel. It sure would help if all of us – not just Prius drivers – were getting 40 mpg.
• John Dillin is a former managing editor of the Monitor.