by Pat Joseph
On Clean Car Day in Kittery, Maine, Cathy Corkery arranged to have on hand two fully electric cars, two hybrid-electric models, two compressed natural gas vehicles and a biodiesel-powered Volkswagen Golf. The latter was driven by Sierra Club member Tracy Wood and modified to run on a home-mixed 80/20 blend of petroleum diesel and canola oil. Thanks to Wood, visitors to the event got a close-up demonstration of do-it-yourself fuel efficiency.
But the clean driving alternatives kept showing up. As Corkery, the Club's global warming representative in New Hampshire, tells it, "People would drive up in their new Toyota Prius and say, 'Hey, I didn't know if you'd have a red one.' And, sure enough, all we had was a gray one. It was great!" All told, 120 people attended the event, an encouraging turnout given the nation's growing obsession with gas-guzzlers.
This year, SUV and light-truck sales are expected to surpass passenger car sales for the first time ever, with the result that our national average fuel economy is at its lowest since 1980. The figures are portentous: cars account for 40 percent of all U.S. oil consumption, and fully one-fifth of the nation's total carbon dioxide emissions comes directly from our tailpipes. Meanwhile, heat-trapping greenhouse gases continue to crank up the global thermostat in a dangerous experiment that threatens to transform the planet.
Small wonder, then, that cars were the primary focus of the Global Warming and Energy Campaign in 2001. From the outset, the Club put the heat on legislators to raise the bar on Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards -- antiquated regulations that have not been revised since they were enacted in 1975. "It's high time they were," says Alex Veitch, global warming organizer in the Club's Washington, D.C., office. Just by raising average fuel efficiency to 40-mpg -- a mark easily within reach using existing technologies -- the United States could save more oil than it imports from the Persian Gulf. Sadly, the House voted down a bill in July that would have raised the fuel-economy requirements of SUVs and light trucks, but the battle continues.
To get the message out, the Club initiated a multi-pronged outreach campaign. A mail-in campaign flooded Capitol Hill with 20,000 postcards designed to educate senators on the need for action, and a Website feature called "I Want My MPG" showed just how many dollars each of us wastes annually feeding our insatiable autos. Over Labor Day -- traditionally one of the busiest driving weekends -- Club staff made appearances on TV and radio, reaching more than 9 million people. The positive effects of the campaign can be seen rippling through the media; favorable editorials have appeared in numerous papers including the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times.
The Sierra Club's message was also taken to the Capitol. After Vice President Dick Cheney made repeated claims that the administration's plan shared 11 out of 12 of the Sierra Club's suggestions, Executive Director Carl Pope requested a meeting with the White House to discuss energy policy. The first meeting -- joined by Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists and U.S. Public Interest Research Group -- took place in June. At the request of the administration, a follow-up was held in July, this time focusing on CAFE standards. The Club invited several other environmental organizations to attend as well as Chuck Frank, a large Chicago-based Chevrolet dealer and a Sierra Club Life Member. Frank argued that, contrary to auto-industry fears, the proposed regulations would do nothing to hurt business.
On the local level, five new campaigns were launched by the Global Warming program. As in Maine, representatives in Illinois, Missouri, Texas and Florida are busily spreading the gospel of cleaner energy, hosting alternative energy fairs and clean-car days of their own.
In Illinois, the word "gospel" took on a more literal meaning as Global Warming and Energy Representative Jennifer Johnson, working with volunteer Sandy Justis, hosted the first-ever meeting of the Interfaith Climate Change Campaign in Chicago. Fifty people of various creeds, from Methodists to Bahai, participated.
In Florida, Global Warming Representative Darden Rice has taken the message on the road, driving a Toyota Prius from St. Petersburg to New Orleans and attending the auction of offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Rice, who refers to her trip as a "whistle stop tour," says, "We want to call attention to the fact that if we conserve energy we don't need to drill. If we raise CAFE standards, we save more oil than could ever be recovered from drilling in the Arctic Refuge or the eastern Gulf of Mexico."
Indeed, as Daniel Becker, director of the Club's Global Warming and Energy Campaign, has said over and over again: "It's the single biggest step we can take."
Photo caption: Homebrew: For Clean Car Day in Kittery, Maine, chapter volunteer Tracy Wood mixes up her signature petroleum diesel/canola oil fuel for use in a her biodiesel-powered Volkswagen Golf. Other attractions at the event, which drew more than 125 participants, include electric, hybrid and natural-gas powered cars.
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