The United States, land of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and air-conditioned McMansions, might do well to turn to the country Americans love to hate for lessons on how to curb its reliance on imported oil: France.
Now that oil is trading around $50 a barrel and the world is coming to expect relatively high oil prices to last a long time, a rethinking of American’s wasteful ways is once again an urgent undertaking.
And like it or not, France, whose perceived diplomatic obstructionism in the run-up to the Iraq war provoked a boycott of French products, has displayed a quality ripe for import: an impressive tenacity in waging what some French call the war on gaspi, short for gaspillage, or waste.
Spurred by the oil shocks of the 1970s, France embarked on a vast state-led drive to flush out as much oil from its economy as possible. With the national slogan at the time, “We don’t have oil, but we have ideas,” it accelerated the shift of electricity production from oil-fired power plants to nuclear reactors, increased taxes on gasoline to the equivalent of $3.75 a gallon, encouraged the sale of diesel-powered cars and gave tax breaks to energy-hungry industries like aluminum, cement and paper to shift from oil to other fuels.
It worked: In contrast to the United States, where oil consumption initially fell but then rose by 16 percent from 1973 to 2003, France saw consumption drop 21 percent, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. Germany matched France’s record in that period.
“Americans have completely abandoned their efforts at energy conservation over the past decade and have been incredibly carefree about oil consumption because they believed they would get access to cheap energy – through force if necessary,” said Pierre Terzian, an energy specialist who runs the Paris-based consulting firm Petrostrategies.
The contrast between French resolve and American abandon in recent years is sharp. The United States, too, took the high road in the 1970s and early 1980s, when the combined impact of the 1973 oil embargo, the growing clout of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the Iranian revolution of 1979 created long gas lines and raised the specter of an oil producers’ stranglehold over the American economy.
The price of Arabian light crude rose from $1.85 a barrel in 1972 to $40 in 1981, or $80 in today’s dollars. Americans responded with a nationwide speed limit of 55 miles an hour, a home-insulating boom and a blossoming of energy-technology start-ups to help business cut their energy bills. Vast improvements came in the home-appliance industry: refrigerators, for example, now consume a third of the energy needed 30 years ago.
But slowly, the United States resumed old habits. By the late 1980s, with oil prices below $20 a barrel, gas guzzlers were back, cars raced along highways at 75 miles an hour with impunity and new vehicles’ average mileage per gallon, which had almost doubled to 27.5 in 1987 from 14 in 1972, slipped back to 24, compared with Europe’s 36.
Although oil has backed away from $50 – light crude for November delivery was trading at $49.85 late Monday – the price is still double what it was two years ago. And with many analysts expecting substantially higher energy prices in the next decade than during the 1990s, some experts are saying that government and industry must rethink some basic policies.
“The lack of emphasis on demand in the past 20 years in the United States has a lot to do with the predicament we’re in now,” said Ashok Gupta, an economist with the National Resources Defense Council. “We need to look at what it will take to get manufacturers to offer technologies that people want.”
One obvious step, which politicians are loath to even mention, would be to increase taxes on gasoline. To encourage the use of mass-transit systems, and to finance their development, European governments impose generally high taxes on gasoline. French drivers pay over $5 a gallon for gasoline, $3.75 of that in taxes, compared with $1.90 a gallon on average in the United States and only 41 cents in taxes.
Proposing an increase to match the European level would, of course, be political suicide in the United States.
At the same time, environmentalists face pressure to accept some trade-offs. Most European countries, for example, have encouraged drivers to buy cars with diesel engines, which burn 30 percent less fuel than regular engines. Two-thirds of cars sold in France are diesel-fueled, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association. That compares with diesel sales of less than half of 1 percent in the United States.
One hurdle to diesel sales in the United States is that they lag in emissions of smog-forming pollutants compared with conventional gasoline-powered cars, although they offer lower emissions of the kind that contribute to global warming. Still, with better technology, carmakers like Chrysler plan to offer new diesel models later this year.
While diesel has made little headway, fuel-efficient hybrid cars, in which an electric motor takes over for the gas engine at low speeds and stops, saving energy in the stop-and-start motions, are gaining in popularity. But so far, only a few carmakers offer them, and there is a waiting-list for some of the more popular models, like the Toyota Prius.
An additional disparity between the United States and France is their approach to nuclear energy. With domestic production of oil a tiny 3 percent of the 2 million barrels it consumes each day, France has turned to nuclear power as its economic savior; 80 percent of its electricity now comes from the country’s 19 nuclear plants. The United States gets 20 percent.
The United States has turned up its nose at nuclear energy because of the risk of a meltdown and because of the controversy over the disposal of nuclear waste. Since the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania in March 1979, no new reactors have been built.
Of course, the depiction of the United States as the world’s energy wastrel and of France as a model of virtue can be overdrawn. All developed countries have significantly improved their energy efficiency in manufacturing and construction since 1973. Moreover, oil’s slice of global energy demand has fallen from 45 percent 30 years ago to 35 percent today.
Still, oil will remain the main source of energy for decades to come, and projections still show U.S. consumption rising by 43 percent by 2025. But rising prices could dampen demand.
“The question is,” Gupta of the NRDC said, “How much do prices have to increase for attitudes to change?”
The New York Times