Sean O'Grady: Fuel and the land of the free

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Before hurricane Katrina and the appalling loss of life it brought, the main story dominating the American media was the price of petrol. The "scandal" of "spiralling" gas prices reaching $2.75 a gallon gripped the most powerful nation on earth.

That's about 36p a litre. It was, thus, slightly like one of those cartoons with an elephant standing on a chair, trembling with a little mouse staring up at it.

On a trip to the States a couple of weeks ago, I detected a palpable sense of panic. Newspapers reported that gas station customers were refusing to pay for their fuel. There was a sharp increase in sales of lockable fuel caps and plenty of tales of people trying to siphon petrol out of neighbours' tanks.

People are shocked at having to pay as much as 40 bucks (£22 or so) to fill up one huge SUV. One TV news show featured a "spotlight on gas prices" - a roving reporter wandering around the Union, broadcasting from various service stations about the feelings of the populace in the face of this threat to the homeland. From Salt Lake City to Memphis, the mood was ugly. Gas is at an all-time high, and Americans are not shy of moaning about it.

Yet, as I said at the time to an American citizen I was fortunate enough to know reasonably well (I would not have said it to a stranger), there is only one sane response to all this whingeing: "Good".

For the rest of the world, at any rate, has long known that the American motorist was living a charmed life, consuming the Earth's most precious resource at a rate that was not good for the planet. That much was familiar ground, and one of the underlying reasons why the Americans couldn't dream of signing up to the Kyoto accord. That, and the fact that it is in the SUV and people carrier (or "minivan") sectors of the car market that the home team of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler-Jeep still claim a competitive advantage. Hence the SUV's exemption from fuel-economy rules imposed on car-makers.

True, plans to tighten those rules up were announced last week by the US Transportation Department, but only by a couple of miles per gallon, and not until 2011. What's good for GM, it seems, is still good for the American economy: no one wants to see an already financially precarious General crash to the floor.

Still, the oddest thing about the American taste for Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Navigators and Hummers and Winnebago motorhomes and all the other behemoths that make a Range Rover look like a Mini, is that they are so unpatriotic. You see, if the US wants to be spared its dependence on those weird/nasty/unstable oil producers from Saudi Arabia to Nigeria to Venezuela, it could go a long way to self-sufficiency simply by downsizing its driving habits. But moms claim they can't live without their minivans, and the makers say that running a Chevy or a Jeep is living the American dream. I have a feeling that even a British-style $7 gallon wouldn't get them to change their ways.

s.o'grady@independent.co.uk

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