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Los Angeles Times
May 29, 2004 - 01:00 AM

by Elizabeth Douglass, Times Staff Writer

Governor Promotes the Idea of Consuming Less Gasoline;

The effort mimics a 2001 campaign on electricity. Some say the unfunded program isn't enough.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has put his political muscle behind a new program to persuade Californians to use less gasoline. But some say the effort lacks punch.

Patterning the program after the state's "Flex Your Power" campaign that helped combat energy-crisis blackouts, Schwarzenegger this week urged businesses and consumers to fight record gas prices by embracing a new effort called "Flex Your Power at the Pump."

"We are not powerless," the governor said in a letter to California government and business leaders. "By working together, we can conserve significant amounts of energy."

The program is a public-awareness effort that focuses on simple fuel-saving measures such as proper car maintenance and tire inflation, minimizing unnecessary idling and air conditioning use, avoiding jack-rabbit starts and increasing the use of carpools. Such basic steps, which have been widely advocated by auto clubs and others for years, can cut fuel usage by up to 15%, according to the new program's literature.

Still, the plan won't have the kind of heft that propelled the program promoting electricity conservation. That program -- backed by a multimillion-dollar budget, television ads and power-bill rebates -- contributed to a reduction in peak consumption statewide of as much as 14% in the summer of 2001, according to state energy officials.

The gas version of "Flex your Power" doesn't have its own budget, relying instead on firms, governments, nonprofits and others to spread the message.

Some question why the governor is not doing more to rein in soaring gasoline prices, which on Friday set a record statewide average of $2.367 a gallon, according to AAA.

Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, believes Schwarzenegger should be attacking systemic problems in California's fuel market and using his clout and popularity to pressure oil companies and the Bush administration for changes.

"Your silence on the imbalance of power between refiners and motorists leading to price gouging of motorists on the West Coast is one reason oil companies continue to rob motorists blind at the pump," Court said in a letter to Schwarzenegger. "You have refused to flex your own power to force refiners to play fair, keep sufficient inventories and maintain existing refining capacity."

Experts say the state's skyrocketing gas prices are mostly caused by high crude oil costs and a growing gap between fuel supply and demand. California's special fuel blend, crowded ports and environmental regulations also play a role, as does the need to supply gasoline to Nevada and Arizona.

At the same time, California refineries are making near-record profits.

Thus far, Schwarzenegger has been silent on the trickier questions of market behavior by the oil companies and Shell Oil Co.'s plan to close its Bakersfield refinery this fall -- a move that has been widely questioned by government officials because it is expected to further tighten supplies and raise prices.

The governor's focus is on conservation, at least for now, according to Terri Carbaugh, a spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger. "Certainly, we hope to do much more," she said.

A host of businesses have pledged to help by adopting the conservation methods and spreading the tips to employees. But it's unclear how much more that will accomplish, because companies such as BP and United Parcel Service Inc. -- two firms on the list of program participants -- already have extensive programs in place to conserve gasoline and move their fleets toward alternative fuels.

But will consumers listen to a governor who last year owned seven Hummers, vehicles known for their excessive size and fuel consumption?

"He will practice what he preaches," said Carbaugh, who noted that Schwarzenegger now owns just three Hummers, including one that is in storage and another that is being converted to run on hydrogen. "He's going to implement all the steps that are outlined in the program."




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