Editorial: No dip in need to conserve

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 29, 2008

The nation’s reprieve from $4-per-gallon gasoline may be ending as Tropical Storm Gustav threatens to disrupt oil and natural gas production on the Gulf Coast. The gathering storm is another reminder that a host of factors drive fuel prices. The only sure way to protect our wallets from wild price fluctuations is to decrease reliance on petroleum products.
Easier said than done, of course. But consumers have started changing their habits by driving less and seeking out more efficient vehicles.
Would that continue if gasoline prices fell substantially and stayed down for a year or more, or would Americans go back to our gas-guzzling ways? We sure reverted after the 1970s oil embargo passed. But that’s not the current prediction from experts at the Energy Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy. Seeing the move toward more fuel-efficient cars as a real change in attitude, the EIA predicts gasoline demand will continue to decline in this country. Already U.S. motorists drove 12.2 billion fewer miles in June 2008 compared to June 2007, and gasoline demand declined by an average 800,000 barrels a day in the first half of the year. U.S. auto sales fell to a 16-year low in July, a result of the one-two punch of high fuel prices and a weak economy. And use of public transportation is up.
These are good signs for those who advocate a less wasteful way of life. Though we have only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes about a quarter of the energy used and is a huge contributor to global warming. Presidential candidates advocate breaking America’s dependence on Mideast oil, but the mark of real progress is decreasing the use of oil altogether. Our capacity for using oil appears to be infinite, but the supply is not.
There’s good news on this front in a new report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The United States could cut its gasoline consumption in half, the report says, if the country switched to hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles by 2035. This would require automakers and their customers to put more focus on efficiency and less on performance. We’d have to trade fast gas guzzlers for slower, lighter vehicles. A complete switch sounds Utopian, but the trend in this direction has started.
We have long known that more efficient energy use was good for the environment, but it has taken higher gasoline prices to change consumer behavior. AAA of the Carolinas says the average price of gasoline in North Carolina this Labor Day weekend is $3.607 a gallon, down 39 cents (about 10 percent) per gallon since July 4 but still 94 cents a gallon higher than a year ago. Fluctuation is the name of the game. But let’s hope the conservation lessons learned over the past year are permanent.