This Earth Day, let's get serious about our country's oil obesity problem.
When it comes to curbing America's appetite for petroleum, fads are as common as the latest South Beach Diet. Each Earth Day, it seems, our leaders bounce from one "get-thin-quick" strategy to another, making little headway in the long-term struggle toward a healthy, oil-free future.
Unlike many diet fads, however, cars powered by ethanol or hydrogen or electricity might actually solve the oil problem in the long run. But until we stop treating these solutions as the flavor of the month, continually switching our research and policy focus on a whim, the nation's unhealthy appetite will continue to grow.
Last year, our economy spent $1.7 billion per day on oil products, up nearly 25 percent from the previous year. Car drivers are being pinched at the pump, automakers have hit junk-bond status, the trucking industry is straining under high costs and major airlines are blaming jet fuel prices for their slow economic recovery.
In the world of oil diets, fuel efficiency is the equivalent of "eating healthy and exercising regularly." It is the single most important strategy for reducing oil dependence, but efficiency gets less attention than burning recycled restaurant grease in cars.
Existing technologies can reduce oil use in every new vehicle and save drivers money, a claim that none of the long-term options can make today, or probably for another decade or more.
But dropping oil from our diet altogether will eventually require new transportation fuels, and it's not too late to start the transition.
Ethanol needs a sustainable, cheap feedstock and better ways to brew the fuel.
Hydrogen-powered cars require technology breakthroughs and clean sources of hydrogen.
Electric cars need much cheaper batteries and a commitment to retire the country's aging fleet of dirty coal power plants.
Ridding our economy of oil will ultimately require the "moonshot" technology that politicians often talk about on the stump. But current funding levels won't even get us off the launch pad. With $6 billion per month spent on the Iraq War, according to the Congressional Research Service, it would be prudent to invest more than the $35 million the government spends each month on oil-saving cars and fuels.
We don't have to wait for a miracle pill to slim down. Pushing readily available fuel-saving technologies into the market is our first step to good health, followed by a strong dose of investing in the new fuels of tomorrow -- all of them.
On this Earth Day, we should commit ourselves to that future.
Jason Mark is Vehicles Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit partnership of scientists and citizens focused on practical environmental solutions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.