Me and My Hybrid
RILLING for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not only an attack on what little remains of this country's wild places; it makes no sense in terms of numbers. We do not know how much oil lies beneath the refuge - at best, it has been estimated, it will fuel our gas-hungry culture for only a few years - but we can easily calculate what a few simple conservation methods would achieve.
Fuel cells and a hydrogen economy being still some way in the future, I recently traded in my Lexus 300 ES sedan for a six-cylinder Honda Accord hybrid. My new car performs as well or better than the previous one, but gives nearly double the mileage for a gallon of gas. Doing a rather average amount of driving in a year - 20,000 or 30,000 miles - I find that I am saving 500 to 1,000 gallons of gas. True, I had to pay a premium for the car (about $3,300 more than the equivalent gas-only model), and my trunk space is a bit reduced, to make room for the battery. But I will make up the extra cost in gas savings in a year or two, I have the convenience of filling my tank only every 500 miles and, more important, I can now drive while enjoying the feeling that I am being economical with fuel and adding half as many pollutants to the atmosphere.
There are some 200 million cars and light trucks on the road in the United States, and if even half of them saved as much fuel as I do now, the total savings would be huge: 50 billion or more gallons of gas a year. This is equivalent to 1.2 billion barrels of oil, about half the entire annual production of oil in the United States and a fifth of what the most reasonable estimates hold can be recovered in total from the Alaska refuge.
There are many ways to save energy, but few are as easy as this. We need to do a great deal more to encourage all kinds of conservation, but especially alternative-energy vehicles, which can contribute enormous oil savings and reduce pollution with no change in lifestyle. Yet the current federal tax incentive for them - a $2,000 deduction this year, and $500 next year - expires entirely by the end of 2006. A first step on the path to a rational energy policy is to reinstate this incentive and increase it.
Other countries have found more creative ways to entice buyers. In Britain, for example, clean vehicles can be exempted from the fee paid by other vehicles to enter congested areas of London during rush hours. Imagine if New York City had a free Green Lane on its bridges and tunnels.
I love the quietness of my hybrid in town, the way the main engine turns off whenever I come to a stop (and this is often in New York City traffic), and there is only the nearly silent electric motor ticking over. I love it when I climb a hill, or have to pass another car, and the electric motor kicks in to assist the gas engine, a bonus of power without any additional fuel demand. And, above all, I love it when, in the city or on the highway, the green ECO sign on the dashboard comes on, and the car is giving me better than 40 miles to the gallon. I know ECO stands for economy, but I like to think it stands for ecology too.
Oliver Sacks is the author of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" and "Awakenings."