Stranded in the Minneapolis airport as hailstones the size of quarters pounded the tarmac, I turned to the local Star Tribune. Responding to an article entitled "Is This the End of the SUV?" a letter writer noted that 76 percent of Americans still drive to work alone, mostly in huge, off-road vehicles.
It's the way of things, the writer added: "When supply and demand go through their natural fall and gas seems cheap again, people will buy big cars."
Today's oil troubles are unlikely to fade away like the 1970s Arab oil embargo.
The letter writer has history on his side, but I think he -- and the many Americans who agree with him -- are wrong this time. The Arab oil embargo and the gas lines it engendered did indeed give small cars a great ride for a few years in the 1970s. (At the height of the crisis, by the way, gas was selling for $1.20 a gallon, and oil was $11 a barrel.) When that artificial shortage ended, the big cars were soon back in the showrooms, followed soon after by the first popular SUVs.
But that's unlikely to happen again. The fundamentals are entirely different now. Americans are finally driving less. Demand will likely drop in 2008, a milestone we haven't seen in 17 years. At the same time, more than half the new car registrations are for passenger vehicles, not trucks. The death of the SUV is upon us.
In 1998, Americans were spending just 1.9 percent of their after-tax income on transportation fuels. Today, it's up to four percent. None of this is going away, just because we want to keep our gas guzzlers on the road. We have record high fuel prices in the middle of a recession, and unprecedented pain rippling through the economy.
Oil demand grows insatiably, particularly in China (7.5 percent a year), India (5.5 percent a year), and other countries with the temerity to think they can drive private cars just like Americans. Where do they get off?
We didn't just wake up and find ourselves oil-stressed. Pundits have been predicting peak oil for decades. Unfortunately, we failed to take them seriously, and we still cling to wishful thinking about a return to normality. Read my lips here: no more cheap oil. Ever.
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