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Are we putting our kids in tanks because we didn't put them in efficient cars? Yes: We wouldn't have needed any oil from the Persian Gulf after 1985 if we'd simply kept on saving oil at the rate we did from 1977 through 1985.

Even now we could still roll back the oil dependence that perpetually holds our foreign policy hostage and distorts other U.S. priorities in the Middle East. Just by aiming at greater efficiency we could eliminate all gulf imports by using only one-eighth less oil.

A great place to start would be personal vehicles. Improving America's 19-mile-per-gallon household vehicle fleet by 3 mpg could replace U.S. imports of oil from Iraq and Kuwait. Another 9 mpg would end the need for any oil from the Persian Gulf and, according to the Department of Energy, would cut the cost of driving to well below pre-crisis levels without sacrificing performance.

The Reagan regime doubled 1985 oil imports from the gulf when it rolled back efficiency standards. Today's new cars average 29 mpg; the fleet, only 20.

Yet 10 manufacturers have built and tested attractive, low-pollution prototype cars that get 67 to 138 mpg. Better design and stronger materials make some of these safer than today's cars, as well as more nimble and peppy.

And efficiency needn't mean smallness. Only 4 percent of past car-efficiency gains came from downsizing. Some of the prototype cars comfortably hold four or five passengers, and two of them are said to cost nothing extra to build.

Many other oil savings can help. Boeing's new 777 jet will use about half the fuel per seat of a 727. Technical refinements can save most of the fuel used by heavy trucks, buses, ships and industry. Insulation, draftproofing and simple hot-water savings can displace most of the oil used in buildings. Superwindows that retain heat in winter and reject it in summer could save each year up to twice as much fuel as we get from Alaska.

In all, we know how to run the present U.S. economy on one-fifth the oil we are now using, and the cost of saving each barrel would be less than $5. Even achieving just 15 percent of that potential oil savings would displace all the oil we've been importing from the gulf.

How can we promote fuel efficiency? Since the often higher purchase price of an efficient car about cancels out the lower gasoline bills, the total cost per mile for 20- and 60-mpg cars is about the same.

The best way is "feebates." When you register a new car you pay a fee or get a rebate, depending on its efficiency. The fees would pay for the rebates.

Rebates for efficient cars should be based on the difference in efficiency between your new car and the old one -- which you'd scrap -- thus getting the most inefficient, dirtiest cars off the road first. That's good for Detroit, for the poor, for the environment and for displacing gulf oil sooner.

The California legislature recently approved car feebates; Connecticut, Iowa and Massachusetts are considering them.

Feebates are also being considered for new buildings in California, Massachusetts and the four Northwestern states, and could be applied to trucks, aircraft, appliances and other energy-consuming goods.

National security, peacetime jobs in a competitive economy and the environment demand immediate mobilization -- not of tanks but of efficient cars, not of B-52s but of 777s, not of naval guns but of caulk guns.

AMORY B. LOVINS and L. Hunter Lovins are director of research and executive director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy policy organization.
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