The United States is re-examining its love affair with sport utility vehicles, those heavy duty cars that are built on small truck frames. Sport utility vehicles, or SUVs, made up about half of all new cars bought by Americans in 2002, despite the fact they get poor fuel mileage and cost up to $70,000 each. The popularity of SUVs has led some critics to launch high-profile campaigns against them.
The Evangelical Environmental Network kicked off the anti-SUV campaigning late last year with a promotional advertisements which said "...maybe we should ask, 'What would Jesus drive?'"
Doug Grace, of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, says he believes Jesus would have shunned gas-guzzling SUVs and chosen the most fuel-efficient car he could find. This is the message he and other like-minded religious leaders are working to disseminate among the American public.
"Well, we are educating over 140,000 congregations in the United States," he said. "That's a significant majority of the congregations that are here."
A group called Americans for Fuel Efficient Cars launched 'the Detroit Project', which takes another, more extreme approach. Its television commercials are modeled after a campaign to discourage drug use by suggesting that profits from illegal drugs go to terrorists. These new advertisements accuse SUV-drivers of supporting terrorism, saying the money they spend for gasoline for their SUVs goes to terrorists.
These campaigns also coincide with new government efforts to improve fuel economy in the heavy duty vehicles. In mid-December, the Department of Transportation announced a proposal to raise SUV fuel-efficiency standards 1.5 miles per gallon, from the current standard of 20.7 miles per gallon to 22.2 by the year 2007.
Tim Hurd, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says the administration will act on the proposal after a 60-day public comment period is completed in February.
"The proposal has been made. The comments are being received," he said. "By April 1, we'll make our final rule. And then we will enforce it. We will collect the fines for the manufacturers that don't meet the requirement."
Despite the U.S. government's efforts to increase SUV fuel-efficiency, some critics say that is not enough. The National Resources Defense Council's Jon Coifman dismisses the move as inconsequential, but adds that it is a direct result of increased public attention to the issue.
"The small improvement in fuel-economy for SUVs and larger trucks recently proposed by the Bush administration really amounts to just a tiny, tiny drop in the bucket of oil consumption in this country," he said.
Mr. Coifman says his organization has been calling for a 40 miles per gallon fuel economy standard for all vehicles sold in the United States by 2012.
"And that's a number we think we could get up to 50, or perhaps 55 miles per gallon, by 2020, using technology that's either on hand now or in the pipeline," he said.
Critics of the critics say linking SUVs to terrorism is ridiculous. Jerry Taylor, Director of Natural Resource Studies at the Cato Institute, acknowledges that SUVs get bad gas mileage. But he says there is no evidence to prove that oil revenue in the Persian Gulf goes to support Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network.
"That's just simply not true," he said. "If newspaper reports are to be believed, which are based upon things that the government tells us, al-Qaida gets its revenues from bin Laden's inheritance from the construction business, which has nothing to do with OPEC oil revenues today."
Mr. Taylor adds that the United States and oil sheiks in the Persian Gulf share at least one thing, Osama bin Laden's animosity.
"If bin Laden took power in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi royal family would be the first to go," he said. "And I think Saudi Aramco also wouldn't live long. And the same thing stands true for the Kuwaiti royal family and the various other regimes of the Persian Gulf. I mean, do bear in mind, bin Laden's declared war against them just as much as he's declared war against the United States."
For SUV owners back in the United States, other conflicting issues present a very real challenge. Photojournalist Lauren Chelec says she finally broke down and got an SUV in 1999 because it fits her lifestyle.
"I have two boys. At the time, I had a dog. And we travel and go places and it's just, it's the perfect car," she said. "But then again, I'm a liberal and when I went to buy it, and I thought, 'you know, I'm killing the environment by getting this car,' but it just fit."
Public antipathy towards SUVs took a vicious turn recently, as a shadowy, eco-terrorist organization known as the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for setting fire to several SUVs in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Authorities also believe the group was responsible for vandalizing as many as 30 SUVs with an acid-like substance, at a dealership in Virginia. In Washington, unknown saboteurs smeared dog excrement under the handles of several SUVs in the ritzy Georgetown neighborhood.
Ms. Chelec says she would like to see auto makers make SUVs more fuel efficient. But she adds that she does not think vandalism is the way to persuade anyone.