America's U-turn as Bush starts to preach for energy conservation

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But out on the streets of California - and every other state of the union - a peculiar form of denial is in full swing. Men of a certain age are still sitting proudly at the wheel of their gleaming behemoths - giant SUVs and superwide trucks and Hummers, the civilian version of military Humvees - and ripping up the asphalt as though oil was still $20 a barrel and peace and tranquillity had somehow burst out across the Middle East.

The big topic of conversation among Hummer drivers these days, in fact, is not the shocking price of petrol but rather the supposed wimpiness of the latest model of their favourite vehicle. The H3 Hummer is being touted by General Motors as a kinder, gentler road hog - smaller and more compact and much cheaper than the outrageously in-your-face H1, and considerably more fuel-efficient. Which is to say, it gets an advertised 19 miles per gallon, compared with as little as 8 on the old model.

This, to put it mildly, is not what the hard-core consumers want to hear. "Gas mileage.. what they heck is that about?" Hummer aficionado Thom Kirouac opined. "If you have to worry or even discuss gas mileage you should be shopping at KIA or Hyundai. Go hug a tree. Hey look, you spend $120,000 on a truck, who cares about the mileage?"

On the very day the Bush administration was talking about the need for energy austerity, Mr Kirouac and his fellow Hummer fans were engaged in a spirited Internet discussion about how the H3 was "pathetically underpowered" and how any Hummer that wasn't big enough to crush one of the new generation of environmentally-friendly, fuel-saving hybrid petrol-electric cars under its vast chassis wasn't really a Hummer at all.

Memo to the president: your new-found conservation mantra may have a problem.

Granted, the Hummer drivers are an extreme bunch. But all across post-Katrina America, the energy crisis - to the extent that it is even being acknowledged as such - is engendering some noticeably strange reactions.

In suburban Riverside County, one of the most conservative areas of California, the sports utility vehicles or SUVs are still very much in evidence - they have been the predominant mode of transport in such areas for years - but the Bush-Cheney election stickers that used to grace many a bumper have become noticeably scarcer since Katrina hit the Gulf coast.

Further afield, many people have heeded the president's call to cut back on their driving - although they tend to say they didn't need the president to give them the idea. But they also say they love their SUVs and don't want to give them up - even if it can easily cost $100 to fill up their tank these days. (That's still a snip by European standards, of course, but almost three times what it cost a few years ago.)

Several political leaders - not just the president - have issued calls for moderation, but have had a hard time practising what they preach. The governor of Georgia, Sonny Perdue, took the drastic and faintly absurd step of closing his state's entire school system for two days last week, supposedly to save diesel fuel on school buses. But he did absolutely nothing to cut back his own hectic schedule of travel around the state, which involved elaborate motorcades and security details and the deployment of local police vehicles. So, politically speaking anyway, the initiative promptly blew up in his face.

One report in the main Atlanta newspaper even suggested Governor Perdue had closed the schools to appease the farming lobby, which was concerned about a diesel shortage and wanted to make sure its tractors and combine harvesters were serviced first. The governor, naturally, has denied stooping to any such depths.

The behaviour of the Bush administration has not been without its own follies. Embracing conservation was already a stretch for a White House that has shown nothing but disdain for energy efficiency - be it in cars, building practices, household appliances, or heating systems. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue," Vice President Dick Cheney once said, "but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

So there was something immediately disingenuous about President Bush's announcement that the air conditioning in the White House would be kept at 72 degrees Fahrenheit -- hardly sweltering point -- and that federal employees would be encouraged to turn off their computers at night and carpool to work.

All of those savings, even if fully realised, pale somewhat in comparison to the cost and energy expenditure of a single trip on Air Force One to Louisiana - of which there have been a lot recently. The presidential plane costs more than $80,000 to fill with fuel, and the presidential helicopter several thousand more. As for the presidential limousine, a 2006-model Cadillac DTS, it gets less than 22 miles per gallon.

Most absurd of all is the Energy Department's new mascot, or rather anti-mascot: an outsize pig who looks a bit like a rapper, with a nose ring, tight curly black hair and a ski cap. This is the Energy Hog, and according to the Department's literature this Hog is one bad, bad pig. "Energy Hogs are nasty critters that hide all over your home and pig out on wasted energy," says the PR copy, with an entirely straight face. "To outsmart the Energy Hogs, you have to beat those nasty oinkers at their own game."

And so consumers are invited to buy energy-efficient fridges, insulate their windows and change out their ordinary light bulbs for government-approved, low-consumption, fluorescent ones. All very laudable steps, no doubt, except that the people being accused of being big fat wasteful pigs are the very people the government is trying to win over. Who's going to be seduced by that message? Jimmy Carter, infamously, tried something similar during the oil crises of the late 1970s and it almost single-handedly doomed him to a single term in the White House.

According to one of the most prominent consultants to the car industry, a flamboyant transplanted Frenchman by the name of Clotaire Rapaille, just about everyone from the president on down has got it wrong. "Monsieur Bush is in big trouble," he said. "After Katrina and Rita, we now have a complete confirmation of the total incompetence of politicians and bureaucrats to deal with any kind of emergency... and he makes these fantastic statements about reconstruction and conservation. What kind of goal is that?

"Americans listen to this and they think, reconstruction - boring. Conservation - boring. It looks so obvious that he's just trying to take advantage of the situation. He's not mobilising American minds, and because of that there's going to be another failure here."

In the States, Mr Rapaille is most famous for identifying the "reptilian brain" at the core of the average American consumer and encouraging the car industry to go all out with SUV production to satisfy that reptilian instinct. He doesn't think Americans have changed, but the times most certainly have.

The trick, he believes, is to let Americans believe they can have it all but also to appeal to their rugged sense of independence. "This is a very adolescent culture," he said. "You can't tell your adolescent, say no to sex. Of course they're going to do it. You can't tell them don't speed, because they're going to speed. We're not going to stop Americans in their desire for speed and power. But at the same time they don't want to be dependent on a bunch of crazy people around the world for their energy, because that would be worse than anything."

His proposed answer entails aggressive investment in alternative fuel sources, starting with hydrogen, and aggressive new standards for energy efficiency. Car companies should not be producing kinder, gentler gas-guzzlers, but rather a whole new generation of super fuel-efficient vehicles ranging from Hummer-style behemoths down to the smallest feel-good tiddler. Houses should be built to more exacting standards. Inefficient household appliances should be outlawed. And on and on down the line - the idea being to leave America's consumer culture intact while radically changing the terms for supplying it.

"We can have cars that do 60 miles per gallon. The technology is there. We can have hydrogen fuel. The problem is, nobody is giving companies any incentive to develop these things," Mr Rapaille said. And the American car industry, in his view, is as much at fault as the politicians.

"Toyota and the Japanese are the only ones who can think long term. The problem with the Americans is that they only think as far as next weekend. That's how far they go in their planning capability," he said. "Detroit is like the Soviet Union before the fall of the Berlin Wall, so slow in moving and adapting. Their SUV sales are down 40 per cent and what do they have to offer? Nothing."

Around the country, there are some pockets of sanity. Cities like Los Angeles and Salt Lake City are developing fleets of alternative-energy vehicles and thinking hard about the infrastructural revolution that is going to be needed to replace petrol pumps with hydrogen pumps. In California, energy consumers pay a modest public benefits charge on their montly fuel bills which goes towards investment into new fuel efficiency programmes.

In some big cities, officials have worked hard to make public transport more attractive as an alternative to rush-hour congestion on major commuter routes. In the more affluent liberal enclaves, especially on the two coasts, hybrid cars are enjoying a huge boom, likely to grow only bigger when hybrid engine technology starts making its debut in larger vehicles and trucks.

But at the level where the biggest difference could be made - the level of the federal government - there is nothing but stagnation. Congress has consistently refused to endorse tougher fuel-efficiency standards because of lobbying pressure from the oil and automotive industries. The Bush administration has shown considerably more interest in easing environmental standards for oil refinery companies at their existing facilities than it has, say, in offering tax credits so more refining capacity can come on line quickly and efficiently.

The trouble with the new conservation message is that it is extremely limited. "The problem is, the administration's not going to change their budget, or change government policy," said Mark Bernstein, a senior energy analyst with the Rand Corporation. "Their solution is to drive less. That's fine, but people are going to do that anyway. They don't need to be told that. The higher prices are hurting quite badly enough by themselves."

It's hard to overstate the damage done by the recent hurricanes. The Gulf refines half of America's oil and gas. Some 90 per cent of the oil and 70 per cent of the gas from the region was knocked out of production, and could easily take six months to come back.

At a time of record oil prices worldwide, that means the current spike in petrol prices is unlikely to recede. Higher fuel costs could, in turn, have a chilling effect on the entire economy. And conservation, under those circumstances, could become self-defeating.

If a cash-strapped school district, daunted by higher energy costs, has to choose between paying its teachers or running its school buses, it may well cut the bus routes. That, though, will lead to a net increase in consumption because parents will end up their children to school in their individual vehicles.

The same is true of cities facing higher fuel bills for its fleets of police, fire and municipal vehicles. They might well be tempted to cut public transport routes, thus putting more cars on the roads.

"This could easily drive us into recession," Mr Bernstein forecast. "None of the long-term solutions are going to make a difference to this crisis. If four years ago we had pursued some of these energy efficiency options to hedge against these types of risks, we would not be feeling as much of a pinch." America, in other words, is not getting significantly greener - just greener around the gills.