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PROBLEMS AT THE PUMP
THE LONG-TERM SOLUTION TO HIGH GAS PRICES REQUIRES CUTTING BACK ON CONSUMPTION

A few weeks ago, The Buffalo News ran stories about the fact that gas prices in our region had hit an all-time high, breaking the last record set in June of last year with gas costing a shocking $2.15 per gallon on average. What we would give to have those thrift-store prices back.

Gas prices have steadily escalated ever since that day and show no signs of abating with the high-demand travel season looming before us. Nearly every day that passes sets a brand new record for our region. Local motorists are now routinely paying more than $30 to fill their tanks. And Energy Department officials are warning that we probably won't see gas prices dip below $2 a gallon anytime within the next two years. Just the opposite -- some analysts see pump prices cracking the $3 mark.

This is crazy. But if there's a silver lining here, it's that the soaring price at the pump may finally force lawmakers and consumers to embrace tougher fuel conservation initiatives and drive automakers to hasten the introduction of more fuel-efficient vehicles. High gas prices are something every consumer can relate to. The problem carries political implications and hurts consumer confidence in the economy.

In addition, the bulk of the money we spend profits the predominantly Middle Eastern oil cartel, a worrisome group of countries over which we have stunningly little influence. The ongoing war in Iraq has only exacerbated the concerns of Americans who are increasingly viewing fuel-efficient cars as a "patriotic" purchase.

At long last, signs of consumer rebellion are finally poking through in the marketplace. Sales for the larger SUVs are down by roughly 20 percent for the first few months of this year. More and more consumers are opting for smaller crossover vehicles, and waiting lists lengthen for hybrid vehicles that run on a blend of gas and electricity. That should be as much incentive as carmakers need to continue expanding this class of automobile.

Congress should aggressively push things along by enacting energy legislation that would raise the minimum fuel efficiency standards for automakers and close loopholes that allow automakers to produce monstrosities that get 12 miles to the gallon. The fact that the average fuel economy for American-bought vehicles actually declined in 2004 should outrage all of us. Yet in recent years, all attempts to improve corporate average fuel economy standards have repeatedly failed to pass in Congress.

President Bush and Congress should be advocating more incentives for the development of hybrid and other alternative-fuel models, and continue tax credits for the people who buy them. We are pleased to see that as technology improves, the number of hybrids available to buyers is expected to triple over the next three years.

It is both shortsighted and environmentally irresponsible to try to solve our problems at the pump by simply suggesting that we tap our Strategic Petroleum Reserve or drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Reducing our overall gasoline dependency primarily through conservation is the only long-term solution that addresses our moral obligation to the environment, our fiscal obligation to our pocketbook and our security obligation to free us from dependency on Middle East oil.