Thirsty Minivans Help Keep Opec In The Driver's Seat

Oil prices are up 40% since February, American energy demand is rising, and U.S. crude production seems headed for a 35-year low--not enough to satisfy even 40% of domestic consumption. To these worrisome trends, add one other: Economist Irwin L. Kellner of Chemical Banking Corp. reports that U.S. fuel efficiency is declining.

Since OPEC first flexed its muscles in the early 1970s, notes Kellner, America's automotive fleet has consistently boosted the average miles it could squeeze out of a gallon of gasoline. In the past two years, however, average vehicle miles traveled per gallon have fallen from 21.7 in 1991 to an estimated 21.4 in 1993, a decline of 1.4% in efficiency. At the same time, the average miles traveled per auto rose by 4.2%.

Kellner attributes the reversal to the booming sales of light trucks in recent years. Minivans and sport-utility vehicles not only tend to burn more fuel than conventional cars, he says, but are governed by lower federally mandated fuel efficiency standards. Since motor gasoline accounts for nearly 45% of U.S. oil consumption, the American driver's current infatuation with gas-thirsty light trucks is having the perverse effect of increasing both the trade deficit and U.S. oil dependence.

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