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SUVs, Environmental Issues

When it comes to the SUV, environmental issues like fuel use and emissions are what concern some people. But that's too simple an analysis.   Updated Jun-2008

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SUVs, Environmental Issues, and Other Factors to Consider

Given a choice, we suspect that Satan would enjoy driving any vehicle with a Burst Into Flames feature. In any event, should today's SUV drivers be condemned to Dante's 7th circle of Hell (the one known as "Yugo")?


SUVs — Then and Now

In the 1990s, oil and gasoline prices were cheap, and it seemed like everyone was trading up for bigger and bigger SUVs. Environmental issues (and everyone else on the road) took a back seat. The Bush Administration even subsidized the purchase of the most ridiculously sized SUVs and trucks by image of big SUV giving a huge tax break to anyone willing to buy one that weighed at least 6,000 pounds.

Now, here in the late 2000s, the price at the pump has many of these formerly vrooming SUV owners crying over their wallets—or leaving their vehicles in the garage altogether. Even tougher, a large-SUV owner who is inclined to trade in his personal road tank for something more fuel efficient is finding that there is no resale market.

The "SUV haters" who had previously engaged in the popular sport of SUV bashing have moved on to smirky utterances of "I told you so."

As we enter the "bumpy plateau" phase of Peak Oil, it was inevitable that oil prices would rise and that gas and diesel prices would follow right along. It's very unfortunate that we're now stuck with so much infrastructure designed and purchased according to the unsustainable paradigm of cheap oil.

The subject of how we let ourselves get into this mess is too broad for this article, but there is one theme we want to explore a little more: A number of characteristics make some people deride SUVs (and sometimes even hate them)—fuel consumption, pollution, roll-over and crash dangers. But the size of the vehicle a person is not the only measure of their vehicular greenness, and those who would point the finger at SUV owners may themselves be just as eco-offensive.


SUVs vs. Other Driving Factors

All along, it's been too simplistic to say "SUVs bad, cars good." For instance, how many of us are driving the most fuel-efficient, least polluting vehicle available on the market? Very few. In addition, other factors play a role in determining our personal "driving impact" on the environment:

  • How far do we drive to work? Do we carpool or take mass transit sometimes?
  • How much driving do we do for personal reasons? Do we combine trips for errands?
  • Are we still driving a 15-year-old "blue smoker" that pollutes more than any new SUV on the road?

If environmental impact is evaluated for all drivers, SUV owners are indeed likely to score more poorly because of the gas-mileage deficit of the typical SUV (as compared to a car). But it's not always that simple—some of the smaller SUVs do better on mileage than some cars.

Now, to be clear, we are not giving a free pass to purchasers of 6,000-pound gas-guzzling behemoths. We also think that purchasers of smaller SUVs who never really needed the functionality of such a vehicle would have been better off in a less polluting, higher mileage vehicle (as their pocketbooks are now reminding them). But all of us should ask ourselves whether we can do more to reduce fuel usage and pollution, whether it's by purchasing a more environmentally friendly vehicle or by developing greener driving/living habits.


Washington Politicians —
500+ Clowns in One (Low-Mileage) Car

Free marketeers argue that the power of the market will always be best at sorting out winners and losers, and that when government gets involved, it just messes things up. This seems to be a rather laughable argument, as we witness the unfolding of the truly massive financial crisis of the late 2000s, which was mostly brought on by the greed and arrogance of "free" market players and the fact that the regulators who were supposed to be watching them weren't.

Free markets, at least as they are currently designed, discount the value of future money and do a poor job of anticipating and planning for serious resource shortages (like oil) or environmental limitations (like global warming). Government's role should be to foresee these deficiencies and help point the free market in the right direction so that we don't all drive over a cliff together.

But for the last two decades, our elected leaders, in concert with our never-admit-anything-can-be-improved auto manufacturers and their buddies the oil companies, have squashed attempts to significantly raise fuel economy standards. This is particularly irksome when it comes to SUVs, since they are driven like cars but have not previously been held to the same gas-mileage standards as cars.

It's shameful that the average 2008 model gets worse gas mileage than the average vehicle in 1980. Worse still, the increased fuel efficiency standards enacted in the US in 2008 are far too little, far too late. We payers-at-the-pump and breathers-of-the-air should be outraged that they did not at least double fuel economy targets for 10 years from now.


Central planning (a la the USSR) clearly does not work well, but it's just as clear that unrestrained pure free-market capitalism doesn't work well, either. Many of today's woes (energy and otherwise) are directly traceable to the anti-government, pro-corporate mania that started almost 30 years ago with Ronald Reagan.

In particular, Reagan deserves historical scorn for taking the US off the energy-efficiency/energy-independence track that had been started by Nixon (yes, Nixon) and then continued by Ford and accelerated by Carter. Our dependence on oil has hugely increased since then, thus hugely increasing our exposure to the vagaries of the oil market, the whims of oil exporters, and the iron hand of Peak Oil.

One can try to argue that Reagan could not have foreseen today's problems, but his three predecessors saw it very clearly. The low, low price of oil that began to reemerge during Reagan's term seemed to prove his assertion that there was no problem with oil, but that phenomenon was due to a number of factors—most notably the vehicle efficiency gains and production expansion caused by the crises of the 1970s. The depression in oil prices was temporary (albeit in effect for more than a decade) and, even worse, deluded us into making bad choices in business and infrastructure (and personal vehicles) for two decades. Bill Clinton also did practically nothing to address our ridiculous level of oil dependence.

Anyway, back to free markets (which are really not free—they are politically controlled and manipulated by and for the benefit of those who gain the most). Using the power of capitalism to motivate us at the person level is fine—certainly better than socialism. But there must be a restraining hand that sets rules for the market based on the long-term needs of society as a whole, not just based on bottom lines and the desires of those who have much but still want more.

The argument that SUVs and minivans would be unaffordable or unmanufacturable if they were made significantly more fuel efficient is the same sort of gloom-and-doom scaremongering that manufacturers put forth in the 1970s when fuel-economy and pollution standards were first proposed. Car makers can apply such measures to SUVs and minivans, and they should. A few years back, the Union of Concerned Scientists (PDF) designed two SUVs using off-the-shelf technology that were safer and more fuel efficient than current models-without sacrificing size or performance.



Maybe you're an anti-SUV crusader who once called them "F-U Vs" and now laughs maniacally when you see an SUV owner break the $100 mark at the gas pump. Or maybe you drive SUV proudly, still enjoying your "up high" advantage over the Prius peons. (Or maybe you're minding your own business, focusing instead on growing your garden because the gas problem is about to be superseded by a food crisis.)

Regardless, we should be able to agree that keeping reasonable style and performance choices in the vehicle fleet and making all vehicles safer, more fuel-efficient, and less polluting are worthwhile and compatible goals. That is, until disruptions in the availability of liquid fuels get to be such a problem that we finally begin questioning the wisdom of a car-centric society. In the meantime, if you want to check out mileage ratings, see

Know someone who might like this article about SUVs and environmental issues? Please forward it to them.

Updated: 06-JUN-2008
(Original: 11-DEC-2003)


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Books for a Better Planet


High and Mighty
SUVs—The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles
and How They Got That Way

by Keith Bradsher




Just what is it that some people hate so much about SUVs? For Keith Bradsher, it's a number of things; but let's start book cover for High and Mighty, Keith Bradsher, 2004 with their gas-guzzling obesity, their higher pollution levels, and their poor safety ratings on the road. Bradsher is also critical of the devious way Detroit has marketed SUVs and slipped them past many of the regulations that apply to "the rest of us," and he's non-too-happy about how our politicians and regulators have let it happen. But this book is not just a rant—it uses facts to make the case. You'll have to read it for yourself to decide whether SUVs really are the world's most dangerous vehicles.

Get reviews or purchase info for this book at

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— Neal Elliott, American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy


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