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Over a barrel

April 26, 2006

POLITICIANS, EVEN ONES FROM Texas who grew up to be president, have little control over the short-term cost of oil. Yet they can never admit as much because then they would look as if they're fiddling while motorists burn. So there was President Bush on Tuesday, unveiling a four-point plan to confront high gas prices that would do little to lower them even if Congress went along with the entire plan, which it won't.

For all that, there is something Washington could do to encourage gas conservation, which would eventually lead to lower prices. Bush even came close to it Tuesday, though he botched the details.

His plan calls on Congress to extend federal tax credits to buyers of hybrid and "clean diesel" vehicles. Tax incentives for gas conservation are a good idea, but Bush's focus on hybrids will only encourage Congress to continue its approach of boosting one technology at the expense of others that might be better.

There are already several bills in Congress to provide incentives for buyers of hybrids, following laws by state and local governments that give everything from tax breaks to preferred parking or carpool-lane access to hybrid owners. This year, the IRS started offering a tax credit of up to $3,400 for hybrid vehicle purchases, but it expires once a certain number of vehicles from each manufacturer have been sold; Bush wants to expand that number.

Hybrid engines, which run on gas and electric power, have a lot of potential. But most existing or planned hybrid vehicles provide fairly small boosts in fuel economy. The approach of most carmakers has been to install hybrid engines in large SUV models or to boost power while raising gas mileage only slightly. Even Toyota's Prius, with the second-best mileage of any hybrid, only delivers impressive results in city driving, when running on battery power. Drivers who spend most of their time on freeways might get better mileage in a conventional Toyota Echo.

Some laws providing incentives to hybrids insist on fuel standards; others don't. The existing federal tax credit gets bigger as mileage improves, but it contains absurd weight-class allowances meant to please Detroit by keeping the credits high for hybrid SUVs. So someone buying, say, the coming hybrid Chevy Tahoe, which is unlikely to get more than 20 to 25 miles per gallon in highway driving, might receive a tax break and other incentives, while buyers of Honda's coming Fit, which will get 38 mpg on a conventional engine, get nothing. How does this conserve gas? Incentives will only work if they're based on results -- fuel economy or low emissions -- rather than targeted to a specific technology.

Mileage-based incentives will do nothing to reduce gas prices over the short term. Nor will the other common-sense conservation approaches, such as forcing Detroit to improve mileage on all its vehicles or investing heavily in alternative-fuel research. But they would make a difference in the long run, and they beat what Bush and Congress are offering instead: a whole lot of wind power generated by flapping gums.

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