Building off the FDA's recent requirement for all cigarette packaging to be marked with large and bold warning labels to discourage potential smokers, the Department of Transportation should consider similar measures in regards to halting the continued influx of SUV buyers. Imagine if each gas-guzzler sold in the U.S. could be accompanied by either a large picture of Hugo Chávez or a horrid image from the Gulf oil spill. The truth of the matter is that while most Americans voice great concern on the environmental and national security dangers of our reliance on oil, few actually act on their intuitions. Although in this day of political cynicism it is the norm to fault Washington for all of our woes, the blame for our continued addiction to foreign oil lies with the American people.
It is continuously harder to make use of the broken record analogy in the days of the iPod and mp3 player, but American energy policy is simply just that. As Americans these past several weeks have remained aghast that their "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" could support the Mubarak dictatorship, we continue to support similar regimes in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Americans select their elected officials by voting, but more importantly select their policies by consuming. Nowhere is this dichotomy felt more than with our addiction to oil.
While auto sales in 2010 of small and fuel-efficient cars remained flat, trucks and SUV's saw their sales increase each around 20% respectively. This trend shows no sign of slowing down, as the two highest selling cars in January were the Ford F-150 and the Chevrolet Silverado. With the governmental and corporate restructuring of the past couple of years, the Big Three have offered a wide variety of fuel-efficient vehicles and hybrids to the American consumer. However, this green initiative has inevitably failed in a marketplace dictated by size. Despite intense advertising and public awareness, sales for hybrid gas-electric vehicles declined by nearly 8% this past year.
Vice President of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers Gloria Bergquist provides an accurate overview of the situation in arguing, "We have the technology, but what consumers choose is another matter." However, she remains committed to green technology and innovation in noting, "We need to get the technology out on the road." Despite the fact that Federal Government's 2011 Fuel Economy Guide lists 160 car models that are fuel-efficient and log at least 30 mpg, the American consumer continues to opt for standard car muscle. As long as hybrids consist of a mere 2% of all market sales, auto manufacturers in the U.S. are sent on a fool's errand when designing new fleets.
While the tough and everlasting political rhetoric to create a green generation of automobiles polls well among independent voters, the Federal Government's continued desire to use Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations for pushing fuel efficiency has been flawed since its inception. Rather than alter consumers incentives for green automobiles, our legislators have established a system where car manufacturers are designed to fail. Former GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz stipulates, "GM will lose money on hybrids. We will continue to build them- they are required by (CAFE standards)- and the cost will be spread across other cars." The former auto executive comically compared these efforts to fighting obesity by requiring tailors to make only small-sized clothes.
The most recent example of this troubling situation can be found with the Ford Motor Company. In an attempt to increase interest with its premiere hybrid model of the 2011 Lincoln MKZ, executives lowered the asking price thousands below its profit margin to equal the cost of a standard gas vehicle. For the same price tag, the consumer has the option between a hybrid vehicle with 39 MPG and a standard gas vehicle of 21 MPG. Like other companies though that have conducted the same experiment, the results have been less than pleasing. Despite seeing a slight increase in sales, only 370 Lincoln MKZ's were sold in the month of January. While car companies are willing to lose their profits for greenness, Americans are not willing to lose their engines.
Although Gallup cites 82% of Americans supporting the Egyptian protesters in their quest for democracy, these same citizens continue to assist in propping up similar (and even worse) regimes around the world. As the largest importer of Venezuelan oil, the U.S. provides the necessary economic might to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Well-versed in Marxist tradition, Mr. Chávez faces little qualms when imprisoning his political opponents and dismantling the independence of the judiciary. As the second largest importer of oil from Saudi Arabia, Americans continue to support the seventh most authoritarian regime in the world according to the 2010 democracy index. While the country of Washington and Lincoln would surely support protests for equal ethnic and gender rights in Saudi Arabia, more focus in reality is on maintaining stability and avoiding a potential shock to oil prices from the world's largest oil exporter.
This same disconnect between political and consumer preference can be found in environmental policy. After last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, 55% of Americans supported prioritizing environmental protection over energy production according to Gallup. However, a year later and the focus has shifted strongly back to energy production. Federal officials are preparing to hand out drilling permits for expansion of oil extraction in Alaska and for its reintroduction into the Gulf. The "Drill Baby Drill" proponents have displayed more excitement as of late with the recent introduction of new drilling techniques that obtains access to once out-of-reach oil in the Western United States including North Dakota, Colorado, Texas, and California.
In an era where the Federal Government has seen some of its lowest approval ratings in history, it has become all too easy for Americans to relegate blame to their elected officials. However, the solutions to our problems are more complex. Should the government raise its artificially low gas tax? Yes. Should the government invest more in research and development of green alternatives? Yes. However, U.S. energy policy will only change for the better when Americans identify themselves as citizens rather than consumers. Energy policy is not created in Congress, but rather at your local car dealership.