ALBANY, N.Y. - Hold the steering wheel tight. The price of a gallon of regular unleaded, now well above $2, could reach $3 by Labor Day. Aren't we lucky, just in time for the summer driving season.
From appearances, this is neither a seasonal discomfort nor a short-term problem. Indeed, it likely indicates permanently high prices. The surplus of oil in the world is fading, the flourishing demands of the once quiescent Chinese market along with burgeoning demands in the rest of Asia are compounding shortages. Sabotage of pipelines and suppliers in Iraq and Saudi Arabia don't help and won't soon disappear. Environmental regulations are helping to increase the cost of each gallon pumped into the tank. Higher prices at the pump raise the cost of doing business and the cost of living for individuals, contributing to the inflation rate.
Refineries claim they cannot keep up with demand. The OPEC oil cartel is pushing the price of a barrel more than $40. At the same time, Americans are driving many more cars many more miles. Of those vehicles, an astonishing percentage are the guzzlers - light trucks, minivans, SUVs - whose presence on the road increased between 1990 to 2001 by about 75 percent, and reduced the number of standard cars to less than half the total.
All in all, oil companies are doing rather well, and auto producers push the sales of the bigger vehicles because they make lots more money from them than from passenger cars.
Driving habits and choices about what kind of car people think they need to drive contribute mightily to the fact that Americans use up a quarter of the world's oil production.
With all these data piling up, the open question is whether and when the cost will finally stanch the consumer appetite for fuel guzzlers.
Some tentative sales figures show that it is at long last beginning to dawn that the rising prices might not decline as they have following past increases. There are early signs that SUVs are not flying out of showrooms as they once were. A small movement to trading the guzzlers in for more fuel economical models may be under way. If in fact Americans control their appetite for the outsized vehicles, this nation would take one giant step toward rationally dealing with emerging oil shortages that could become critical.
While there is disagreement on just how much gas could be saved as SUVs have become somewhat less gargantuan and more fuel efficient, it would still be substantial. A further consequence of burning less gasoline also would mitigate the impact of global warming, and the rising sea levels that could change life as we know it. Only last week, scientists came out with a finding that global warming could also diminish sunlight.
So we would wind up not only damp but also in the dark.
One of the reasons for the SUV's popularity was its status as king of the road. It was pricey. It was able to clamber over rough terrain (although rarely used that way by most owners). It easily intimidated standard vehicles and encouraged aggressive driving habits. In an accident, its size would protect it while inflicting special mayhem onto any smaller vehicle with which it collided.
But now we know that because of their larger size, SUVs are more prone to rollovers and account for a growing proportion of traffic fatalities.
All the more reason for the federal government to lead the way, eliminate the special exemptions on fuel efficiency and emissions for the light trucks category, and do away with the special tax breaks that were intended for trucks used commercially.
Most importantly, Washington first should revert to fuel standards it has all but abandoned and then toughen them. It's time for Americans - people and government - to wake up and smell the fumes.
Harry Rosenfeld is editor-at-large of the Albany, N.Y., Times Union. His e-mail address is email@example.com.