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US Dependence on Foreign Oil Threatens Peace, say Environmentalists - 2003-11-16

America's seemingly unquenchable thirst for oil has long been a favored target of environmentalists. The United States consumes nearly 20 million barrels of oil per day. Japan, the world's second-largest consumer, averages just under 5.5 million barrels per day. Environmentalists have been warning for years that oil is polluting our oceans and contributing to global warming.

It's ten o'clock on a crisp, November night in New York City. About 50 cyclists are gathering at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park. They come here on the first Friday of every month, regardless of the weather, to enjoy the park at night. But according to ride organizer Bill Simms, there's a greater agenda behind this evening's outing. It's one of several activities sponsored by "Time's Up," an environmental group that wants Americans to stop polluting the air with their cars and trucks.

"What we see in America is people buy bicycles for reasons of sporting, and they use them on the weekends," he said. "But what we're trying to encourage is everyday riding as transportation. Tonight's ride in the park gets people experience on their bike, and ... before you know it, they'll be biking to work, and getting their friends to bike."

Time's Up has been promoting cycling as an environmentally responsible transportation alternative for the past decade. But Bill Simms says once the United States entered into its second war with Iraq, the organization also began to promote bicycles as a component of national security.

"Riding your bike is a political message right now, because the country's at war, the president is involved in a lot of oil, global warming is here, and it's just a clean, smart way to get around, especially in cities," said Mr. Simms.

Bill Simms isn't the only environmentalist to recognize the power of the national security argument. Earlier this year, the Evangelical Environmental Network launched a campaign, calling on Christians to consider what sort of vehicle Jesus would drive. The campaign pointed to America's dependence on foreign oil as a threat to peace. And shortly after September 11, political columnist Arianna Huffington, who would later run for governor of California, helped to produce a series of television and newspaper ads that accused owners of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles of unwittingly helping to fund terrorism. The ads had very little effect on SUV sales, but according Brendan Bell, a spokesperson for the environmental group, the Sierra Club, the tactic has proved to be effective in the past. Mr. Bell says one of the first pieces of legislation ever to address America's excessive oil consumption was passed not so much because Congress was concerned about the environment, but because it believed America's dependence on foreign oil made the country economically vulnerable.

"Congress in 1975 passed requirements for cars and trucks to get a certain miles per gallon," said Mr. Bell. "This was in 1975, in response to the OPEC oil embargo as a way to ease the United States' dependence on foreign oil."

One year earlier, Congress also set the national speed limit at 88 kilometers per hour, since this was thought to be the most fuel-efficient rate at which a vehicle could travel. That limit was ultimately repealed in 1995 to the delight of impatient motorists, and the fuel efficiency requirements on passenger cars first set in 1975 haven't actually been updated since 1986. Brendan Bell says this may be because Americans in the '80s and '90s just weren't forced to see oil consumption as a national security issue. But he insists this doesn't mean that arguments about clean air and water aren't legitimate.

"I think both arguments are strong, so I don't think that one argument overshadows the other," commented Mr. Bell. "Clearly, at certain times, our dependence on foreign oil is particularly acute. It's difficult for lawmakers to ignore the fact that we're sending our troops into the Persian Gulf every ten years over something that has something to do with our dependence on oil."

Nevertheless, Brendan Bell says most environmentalists believe that neither the national security argument nor the environmental argument is going to have much of an impact on America's oil consumption, so long as the political influence of the U.S. petroleum industry remains as strong as it is today.