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Published: Saturday, 5/15/2004

Detroit's heavy metal

ENVIRONMENTALISTS had to be dumbfounded when President Bush declared, during his recent campaign visit and speech in Maumee, that he gives his full support to "an energy program based on conservation."

If that were an honest aim and not just an election-year rhetorical throwaway, it would amount to a 180-degree shift in direction for an administration whose energy program, such as it is, focuses mainly on consumption - finding more oil to fuel the thirsty sport utility vehicles favored by Republicans and Democrats alike.

It is doubtful that Mr. Bush has experienced a conversion on the issue. His ear has been bent too long by such advisers as Vice President (and fellow oilman) Dick Cheney, who once derided conservation as merely an impractical "personal virtue."

Even if the President were serious, conservation of motor fuel has become problematic over the past two decades because of the increasingly bulky passenger vehicles rolling off the assembly lines of automakers.

The average weight of U.S. cars and light trucks topped 4,000 pounds last year, according to a report from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The average of 4,021 pounds for 2003 model passenger vehicles was the highest since 1976. Five years after that, the average weight was down to 3,202 pounds, but it has been gradually rising in the two decades since. Because more weight generally equates with poorer fuel economy, gas mileage has been tapering off, distressing conservationists.

Since peaking at 22.1 miles per gallon in the late 1980s, the average fleet fuel economy declined to 20.3 mpg in 2003. Part of this trend is due to the shift in consumer demand to SUVs, pickups, and minivans, which now constitute more than half of all vehicle sales. Light trucks are required by EPA regulations to average 20.7 mpg, versus 27.5 for regular passenger cars.

That's a major obstacle facing those who want to make the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil.

The continuing infatuation of Americans with bigger and heavier SUVs suggests that not even the recent upsurge in oil prices - now hovering near $40 a barrel - may spur any mass move toward smaller, lighter vehicles.

Safety concerns also play a part, with many motorists assuming that bigger is safer, although some manufacturers, like Honda, have studies indicating otherwise.

With gasoline prices hitting an all-time record high every week, though, motorists may decide, or be forced to conclude, that conservation is more than merely the "personal virtue" Mr. Cheney disdains.

In any case, the American public will be making a weighty decision.



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