Gas guzzlers:

Not all vehicles are created equal


Pumping gas into SUVs, minivans, is like pouring water down the drain Not all cars are environmentally equal By Mikaela Rierson

Hikes in fuel prices around the country didn't stop an estimated 33.7 million Americans from travel over the Labor Day weekend. The higher prices don't seem to be making a dent in k~cal pockets, either.

This week in Craig, unleaded is pumping for $1.74 a gallon. A little less than the $1.81 in Honolulu, and a little more than $1.46 in Kansas City or $1.15 in Florida. According to the American Automobile Association's (AAA) weekly survey, Colorado's gas prices have remained higher than the national average of $1.50 a gallon for I 1 consecutive weeks.

The usual grumbling can be heard at gas tanks around town. Even though prices are about 2S cents per gallon higher than they were a year ago, people still seem willing to ante Up at the pump without much of a fuss.

"It costs me about $30 to fill up," Craig resident Jeri Carr said. "But I get 20 miles to the gallon and only drive around town." She wiped a spot of dust off the shiny fender of her new SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle) - a GMC Jimmy. Her husband, Keith, commutes in a ditferent car 45() miles a week to Steamboat Springs and back. "Oh, man! It's costing us $240 a month just iN'r his gas."

Americans have long had a love affair with their cars. In this neck of the woods it s not cars so much as our trucks. The bigger, the louder, the better. And trucks are the gas-guzzlers. according to Riley Sovine in the sales office at the Craig Ford-Mercury dealership. 'We scil more trucks than anything," Sovine said.

There has been an explosion in sales of so-called light trucks, including SUVs, minivans. ~u pickups. According to a study released in August by the Washington-based nonprofit group. Friends of the Earth, light trucks constitute almost half of all new car sales, most ot them hougllt for commuting, errands and kid delivery. Yet current federal standards allow them to emit morc~ pollution and consume more gasoline than cars.

Under a 1978 law passed by Congress to encourage production of fuel-etficient vehicles. U.S. and foreign auto makers must pay taxes ranging from $1,000 to $7,7()() for each new passcnger car that gets below 22.5 miles per gallon on a combined city-highway avcragc. The light-duty trucks, such as SUVs, minivans, full-size vans and pickups, were exempted on the theory that many were used in businesses such as construction and on farms. The Friends of the Earth report concluded that if these veh~cles were held to the same 22.5 mpg standard, the industry as a whole would have paid the federal government $43.1 billion over the past five years.

The fact is the United States is a gas-guzzler. We use 17 million barrels of oil per day, nearly half of which is imported. Gasoline, one of the main products refined from crude oil, accounts for 20 percent of the energy consumed in the United States, primarily in cars and light trucks. What are you paying for when you buy a gallon of regular? According to the Energy Information Administration Office of Oil and Gas, (EIA) 37 percent of the retail cost is for crude oil, 36 percent goes to federal and state taxes, 13 percent pays for refining costs and profits, and 14 percent takes care of the distribution, marketing, and retail station costs and profits. Price fluctuations are due to seasonal demands for gasoline, local station competition, and crude oil supply disruptions stemming from world events or refinery outages. Current high prices are due to several factors, but EIA fingers the single greatest factor as OPECs unwillingness to commit to a production increase ahead of its Sept. 10 meeting.

At the local level, international calendars are an ocean away. John Caines, owner of Austam International auto sales in Craig, said some people are beginning to trade in their gas-guzzlers for older model cars. "A couple of weeks ago a guy bought a Nissan because he was spending $ l000 a month to commute to Steamboat in his truck." Caines said. "But I don't think the prices are hurting most people that much - they'd rather drive what they've got and pay a little extra. '

Hopefully, the cost per gallon will stop going up. Caines recently visited England and said overseas fuel prices are $6 a gallon.

If the price of gasoline isn't high enough in this country to pry us out of our SUVs, even if carbon emissions are at an all-time high, what will?

"Automakers are already competing with each other to bring more fuel-efficient vehicles to market," said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers. Ford has pledged to improve the fuel efficiency of its SUV fleet 25 percent by 2005 a percentage that could reduce global warming pollution of every Ford SUV by 20 percent, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Toyota, Honda, Fiat, BMW and Audi are marketing fuel-saving and hybrid-engine cars. Chrysler, Ford and General Motors have added clean air cars to their salesrooms in the U.S.

And, people are buying the cars. It's no wonder, given the strides in technology surrounding hybrid and alternative-fuel engines. By using an electric motor with a gasoline engine, hybrids blaze the way for the cleanest technology. Auto companies predict the first hybrids to hit America can go 700 miles on a tank of gas, and are competitively priced at under $20,00(). Toyota's Prius, a four-passenger sedan, and Honda's Insight, a two-passenger sport coupe are already out of the chute.

Battery electrics are on the road today, hybrids have entered showrooms, and fuel cells could be on the market as soon as 2004. These cars are as fast, as cheap and as attractive as piston-engineonly models. Plus, they have near zero emissions and can get up to 70 miles to the gallon.

For drivers who want to hang on to their love-affair a little longer, there is a place to get the lowest gas prices in your neighborhood. The Internet site lets you name your own price for gasoline. You pay by credit card on the Internet, then sends you a debit card that you take to a local station, swipe at the pump, and buy gas at your price. It won't do anything to clean up the environment, but it'll free up some pocket change while you save tor a car that will.

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