Tailfins Forever!


THERE IS a better way to deal with the recurring crises brought on by our obsessive devotion to cars. It is not as daring as sending 150,000 troops and 700 aircraft to the Persian Gulf, true, but it is a little more dramatic than just putting more air in our tires.

Those are the two most noticeable administration responses to the current showdown so far -- one ordered by Mr. Bush, the other recommended by his energy secretary. In Congress, Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., and sensible colleagues are pushing an old idea that is cheaper than foreign intervention and more effective than war or over-inflated radials.

It is to go on a long-term oil diet, to avoid the binge-and-starve cycle that has gotten us into this mess again. It is to mandate more miles per gallon from American cars, a method that has saved millions of barrels of oil since it began after the first oil embargo in the mid-Seventies, and can save millions more in the future.

The chance that American lives may be lost over oil in the Gulf should motivate Congress and the president to see that the nation conserves gasoline in the most obvious way. Especially under these tense circumstances, we should expect gas-saving legislation to sail through Congress, and the president to welcome it as another jab in the eye to Saddam Hussein.

But real-world events don't always intrude on the legislative process. The Senate may still pass the Bryan bill, but that seems unlikely after Sen. Don Riegle foiled an effort yesterday to cut off debate. The House conceivably could pass it, but not if Rep. John Dingell ties it up in his Energy and Commerce Committee. (( And even if both houses did, Mr. Bush would probably veto it as his advisers have urged.

The gentlemen from Michigan, of course, are responding to the auto industry. The industry is saying today just what it said when Congress was responding to the first oil embargo: that more efficient cars are impossible to make, difficult to sell and unprofitable.

Mr. Bryan has happily read to his colleagues the identical arguments made by industry executives in that earlier crisis. Despite their wails, conservation legislation was passed and by 1987 the average for cars sold here approximately doubled, to 28 m.p.g. The current Bryan bill would set a 35 m.p.g. target for the mid-Nineties, and 40 m.p.g. for the year 2001, for a saving of about 2.8 million barrels a day.

Predictably, the industry and its delegates in Congress cry that the legislation would bring not triumph but tragedy. "We would have disaster on our hands," says Thomas Hanna, who heads the auto makers' lobby. Most senators support the bill, but not quite enough to halt debate and force a vote. Before that setback yesterday, Mr. Dingell's power to bury it in the House was considered even more of a threat to enactment. At the White House, Mr. Bush has long opposed m.p.g. legislation, and both his Transportation and Energy secretaries say he should veto it.

Samuel Skinner at Transportation asserts that the Bryan bill's goals are "unrealistic, irresponsible and . . . unattainable" -- which echoes what Lee Iacocca, then president of Ford, said in 1975 about the goal of 28 m.p.g. by 1985.

If Mr. Iacocca were as frank as he lets on in his TV commercials, he would have said Detroit was happy making big money off big cars that it didn't want to spend heavily to retool to make more efficient ones. The demand was for m.p.h., not m.p.g. -- for hotrods and luxury cruisers, not efficient transportation. That demand was created by the industry's multi-billion-dollar advertising, which plugged the cars with the fattest profit margins, and still does.

Mr. Iacocca said then, and Mr. Hanna and Mr. Skinner say today, that serious conservation can't work. Mr. Bryan and the history of the past 15 years say it can -- but they are speaking of technology, not politics.

The Environmental Protection Agency released its new fuel-economy figures yesterday. All of the 10 most efficient models for 1991 are foreign-built. Since mileage averages reached their current level in 1987, there has been no overall improvement. The industry has done exactly what was required by law, and no more.

Mr. Bush is willing to send an army to the brink of war halfway around the world, but seems unwilling to sign a bill to conserve oil. He keeps reminding us that his first presidency was not in Washington but in Midland-Odessa, Texas, in the balmy 1950s, the tailfin decade, when every g.p.m. meant another $ for Zapata Oil.

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