Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait may have plunged the Middle East into its worst crisis since the Six Day War of 1967, but the standoff in the sand has given a boost to lawmakers and environmentalists concerned over the threat of global climate warming.
For more than a year, activists had been trying, without much success, to get the Bush Administration to seek dramatic reductions in America's output of carbon dioxide, the "greenhouse gas" principally responsible for trapping the sun's heat. The government had rebuffed their appeals on grounds that it needed more information--both on the evidence of accelerated warming and the cost of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
But with the threat of a drop in world oil supplies as a result of the loss of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil, the U.S. may now come face to face with the need to conserve fuel. The Gulf crisis may generate support for making cars more efficient, a potentially huge step toward reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
"Increased fuel efficiency," said Daniel Becker of the Sierra Club, "is the single most important contribution we can now make toward combatting global warming."
A bill pending in the Senate would require automobile manufacturers to produce, by the turn of the century, vehicles that average up to 45 miles per gallon of gasoline, compared to an average of 18 m.p.g. for all cars now on the road and 27.5 m.p.g. for new cars sold this year.
Each year, the United States pumps 1.25 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Nearly a third of this comes from motor vehicles. Another third comes from the burning of coal, oil and gas to produce electricity. The rest is from miscellaneous other industrial sources.
Sen. Richard H. Bryan (D-Nev.), chief sponsor of the fuel efficiency measure expected to be put before the Senate in the fall, says it would result in carbon dioxide emissions being reduced by 485 million tons in the first six years. Over the lifetime of automobiles manufactured in 1995, it would save 9.1 billion gallons of gasoline.
When the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved its sweeping modernization of clean air laws earlier this year, it included a requirement for a 40-m.p.g. average for cars by the year 2000.
But the measure was adamantly opposed by the Bush Administration. In closed negotiations arranged to save the package from a veto, Senate leaders agreed to drop the auto efficiency rule. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) promised Bryan that it would be put to a vote as a separate bill later in the year.
Bryan's bill would require a 20% improvement in fuel efficiency by the 1995 model year, and fleet averages of 40 m.p.g. for the 2001 model year.
In the House, meanwhile, Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I) included a 45-m.p.g. requirement in an omnibus global-warming bill. After that bill was referred to 11 House committees for consideration, Schneider and Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) introduced a separate fuel efficiency measure, now before the Energy and Commerce Committee, to raise the fleet average figure to 45 m.p.g.
"The climate," said Bryan, "is much improved for favorable action. Once again a crisis has pointed up our vulnerability, and people are asking how we got into this again so soon."
Nevertheless, he said, industry opposition confronts the bill with an uphill fight, even though it addresses both global warming and energy independence.
On the other hand, environmental groups are launching campaigns in support of the bill.
"Right now, we are being held hostage by both Iraq and Detroit," the Sierra Club's Becker said.