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Environmentalists Fret Continued Growth of Light-Truck Sales


As auto shoppers in the U.S. move closer to making the light truck their preferred vehicle, environmentalists are raising concerns that gas-gulping pickups and sport-utility vehicles will prolong the country's dependence on foreign oil and speed the process of global warming.

Purchases of light trucks, including minivans, accounted for 50.5% of all passenger-vehicle sales in the U.S. for the first 11 months of the year. Some analysts are predicting that when December sales figures are released Thursday, 2001 will become the first year in which trucks account for more than half the market.

Of particular concern to environmentalists is the continuing popularity of SUVs, which typically are less fuel-efficient than passenger cars and are widely used for everyday travel--often with just one or two occupants in vehicles built to carry five to seven people.

"We burn 1.2 million more barrels of gasoline per day because SUVs and light trucks are less efficient than cars," said Jason Mark, clean vehicles program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "That's about twice as much oil as we import from Iraq, or three-quarters of what we import from Saudi Arabia."

Mileage figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that, on average, light trucks consume 40% more gasoline than cars, adding as much as $25 billion a year to retail gasoline sales.

The additional carbon dioxide emitted as that extra fuel is burned by the light-truck fleet traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming, Mark and other environmentalists say.

Although auto makers have pledged to improve truck mileage, environmentalists complain that auto makers are moving too slowly.

Recent studies by Mark's group and by the National Academy of Sciences have found that auto makers could dramatically improve truck fuel economy with existing technologies, such as direct fuel injection, variable-valve engine control, lighter frames and six-speed manual and automatic transmissions that more effectively manage engine output.

But auto makers argue that adding such technologies would boost costs and force them either to subsidize purchases or watch profitable truck sales decline.

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