Driving Toward Independence

Lest anyone imagine that America is going to wean itself from Saudi oil by trading in gas guzzlers for gas sippers, meet some recent car buyers. In Memphis, Cindy Bond, 43, and her husband, Stan, 55, have owned SUVs since the early '90s. Last month they traded in their '98 Ford Expedition for the 2001 model; it gets 14 miles per gallon in city driving. Bond is furious that "the government has allowed us to become dependent on other nations" for oil, and calls gas guzzling a myth. Stephanie Dexter of Wilmington, Dela., opted last month for a GMC Yukon XL (12 mpg, city). She believes Americans have a right "to do what we want and buy what we want. Isn't that why we're fighting?" Bond and Dexter have a lot of company. Last month buyers snapped up 42 percent more SUVs than they did a year ago. "No one," says auto consultant Wes Brown of NexTrend, "is talking about parking their SUVs to be patriotic."

Would it help if they did? Suspicions about Saudi support for terrorism have sparked unease with our reliance on oil from Riyadh, resurrecting a phrase almost unheard in a generation: oil independence. With only 2 percent of the world's petroleum reserves, the United States needs foreign crude. But it might not need Saudi Arabia's. This year we are importing 1.7 million barrels of Saudi oil a day (a barrel is 42 gallons). That's 9 percent of our total oil consumption. But since we buy more from Canada (1.8 million barrels a day), and a lot from Venezuela (1.6 million) and Mexico (1.3 million), right off the bat Saudi oil--attractive because of its cheap and constant flow--doesn't loom that large. Even better, the lion's share of the oil America consumes--68 percent--goes to a single use: transportation. To live without Saudi crude, in other words, does not require new ways to generate the electricity that powers our appliances and runs our factories. It does not require new fuels to heat our homes (only 5 percent of total U.S. oil consumption goes to home heating). What it requires are new sources of oil to keep cars and trucks rolling, technologies to make vehicles go farther on a gallon of gasoline and, eventually, engines that make gasoline as obsolete as a hand crank on the front bumper.

If America decided to sever its ties to Riyadh, we would have more options than during the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Since then, "new sources of supply have come on stream from the North Sea, Mexico, China, Alaska and elsewhere," says economist George Perry of the Brookings Institution. "Russia is already the world's second largest exporter of oil." These nations cannot sell us more overnight--they already produce full out. But Russia's production, to take one example, is expected to climb from 6 million barrels a day in 1999 to 8 million in 2003. "They want to export more; they need the money," says John Lichtblau, of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation. Increasing domestic production is iffier. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge holds an estimated 3.2 billion barrels--six years' of Saudi imports--but would offer nothing in the short term. Under the rosiest industry forecasts, ANWR oil would not begin flowing for 10 years. And once it's gone, it's gone.

For that reason, says Perry, "the way to diminish the threat of losing Saudi oil is conservation." The very word gives many Americans nightmares about freezing in the dark and--gulp--carpooling. But by "conservation," energy analysts mean doing the same things with less. "Energy efficiency is the quickest and cheapest way to extend our nation's oil supplies," says David Nemtzow, president of the business, consumer and government coalition Alliance to Save Energy. How quick? If everyone who buys a car in the next year bought the most fuel-efficient model in a given class (compacts, sedans, SUVs), the country would save 31 million barrels of gasoline a year. Not ready to buy? Keeping every car tuned and its tires properly inflated would save 1 million barrels of oil a day--almost half our Saudi imports.

Beyond quick hits, decreasing dependence on Saudi oil means running vehicles on less of the stuff. The mileage standards known as CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) already save the United States 3 million barrels of oil a day. But those standards were set in 1973. Although the fuel efficiency of new vehicles doubled between then and 1985, there's been no progress since. A big reason is that CAFE standards for SUVs (10 percent of the passenger vehicles on the road) are so lenient. As a result, America's fleet now has the lowest average fuel economy since 1980. Holding mileage gains steady rather than backsliding in the '90s would have saved half a million barrels of oil daily. Nudging up average fuel economy by a single mpg saves 300,000 barrels of oil a day. Or as Nemtzow says, "If you want to find more oil for America, drill in Detroit."

Motor City was doing that even before September 11. The biggest efficiency gain, the carmakers decided, will come from "hybrid" vehicles that marry a gasoline engine to an electric motor that charges off the brakes--no outlet required. DaimlerChrysler plans to roll out a hybrid Dodge Durango in 2003; its mpg will zoom 30 percent over the gasoline model. Ford's hybrid SUV, the Escape (40 mpg, city), will reach lots in 2003. General Motors will follow with a hybrid SUV (35 mpg) in 2004. They'll likely cost more than gas-only versions, but early indications suggest that won't hinder sales. Carmakers are also spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on a technology that eliminates gasoline entirely: fuel cells. Developed for the Gemini and Apollo space missions, fuel cells already power buses in Chicago and other cities. "We expect to have a fleet of about 200 fuel-cell cars by 2004," says Ford spokesperson Robyn Schultz. At GM, engineer Matt Fronk is optimistic that fuel cells running on hydrogen derived from plain water, with nary a drop of petrol, "is the long-term answer. I believe that by 2010 we'll see real commercialization."

According to the NEWSWEEK Poll, about 73 percent of Americans would pay $200 more for a high-mpg car; 42 percent say it is "very important" for oil independence that SUV-owners switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles. But 3.5 million SUVs--a record--are expected to move off the lots this year. Says NexTrend's Brown, "Baby boomers talk a great game, but they're not going to change the way they live." If America pushes fuel efficiency, they won't have to.