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Hybrid Moments 

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Everyone remembers their first time, don’t they? There’s a first time for everything, even a ride in the backseat of a Toyota Prius (51 mpg). My first hybrid moment took place early this month during a visit to Los Angeles.

Driving to a downtown restaurant, I watched the car’s onboard computer screen monitor the replenishing of the car’s batteries as we idled at stoplights. The car’s bifurcated system of electric motor and gas-fueled engine was quiet enough for a nursery room. The owner had an almost motherly pride about her new purchase. She talked about flirting with SUV drivers who give her nasty looks. “I just wave my hands and smile,” she said. “I don’t think they even get it.”

Forget religion for a moment. Car purchases used to serve as a barometer of wealth. For the very rich who can afford parting with $40 every time they saddle up to the gas bar, that won’t change. For the rest of us, car purchases are now a measure of moral and ethical fortitude.

In 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney told us conscientious consumption of energy was for wimps. “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy,” he snorted. Cheney didn’t take kindly to anyone asking questions about the workings of his National Energy Policy Development Group, either. This spring the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia sided with Cheney, ruling that the American public had no right to learn what the panel discussed in meetings, never mind who in the oil industry sat in on them.

Now, four years and two Gulf Coast hurricanes later, President Bush asks that Americans become “better conservers of energy.” It’s amazing how administrative rhetoric changes when Cheney visits the hospital, no?

Unfortunately, the issue of hybrid vehicles has become almost as confusing as our national energy policy, or lack of one. The naysayers have weighed in, saying that unless gas reaches $5.50 or $9 per gallon a hybrid ain’t worth your hard-won dinero. Environmentalists complain that consumers ignore the full potential of the technology when they opt for “luxury hybrids” averaging 35 mpg instead of hybrids with the potential for 80 mpg. Few understand the tax breaks for these vehicles under Bush’s new energy bill.

Meanwhile, automobile experts rightly state that no one need shell out money on a hybrid to experience immediate fuel savings with his or her existing car. Just drive less aggressively. Slower driving and less frequent braking can slash 30 percent off your monthly gas bill. Then there’s clean-burning low-sulfur diesel fuel pumped through modern turbodiesel engines. Americans remember diesel fuel as a remnant of the Carter administration, when it spewed black clouds and rattled through antiquated engines. The Europeans, meanwhile, have taken diesel into the modern age, with fast, powerful, longer-lasting engines and efficiency that rockets into the territory of 38 mpg and even 46 mpg on the highway. And who cares if the oil changes are more expensive when a turbodiesel gives you all that passing power?

Anyone who’s read Thomas Friedman’s syndicated column knows some of the most repressive governments on earth enjoy massive profits from their nations’ oil. The “Publish What You Pay” program sponsored by Oxfam, Global Witness and Transparency International has asked that oil companies reveal the many paths of their money trails. True to form, the current administration opposes any financial disclosure where oil money is concerned.

Wrestling ourselves away from oil’s powerful grip makes fighting terrorism look easy. Terrorism points toward “them,” while oil indicts us all. No one can argue that a hybrid, or driving less aggressively, won’t make you less guilty.

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