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NEW YORK -- In past years, when gasoline prices shot up, Americans could find convenient scapegoats: manipulation by OPEC, wartime market jitters, price gouging by oil companies. But as gas prices set a new U.S. record, an average of $1.95 a gallon for regular unleaded, consumers can't duck some of the blame, according to USA Today.
Energy analysts say the main reason gas prices are 45 cents per gallon higher than a year ago is that oil supplies can't keep pace with rising demand, up 4.4 percent in the United States in the past year. A chunk of that higher demand is coming from U.S. drivers who have become addicted to cheap gas for their fuel-thirsty SUVs and other vehicles.
While motorists may cringe when they pull into a gas station, prices adjusted for inflation are only about 20 cents per gallon higher than in 1990 and well below the equivalent of nearly $3 in March 1981, according to the U.S. Energy Department. As recently as the late 1990s, inflation-adjusted prices were among the lowest in history.
The fact that gas has been a bargain for so long explains why SUVs account for 25 percent of new sales -- a tenfold increase since 1975 -- and the average vehicle guzzles more gas.
Afterthe trend toward lighter and more fuel-efficient vehicles that lasted for nearly two decades, the average 2004 model now weighs 4,066 pounds -- up 26 percent from 1987, according to a report last month by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Automakers also are meeting consumer demand for more powerful vehicles. They now average 10 seconds to accelerate from 0 to 60 mph vs. 13.1 seconds in 1987, the EPA said.
More weight and power require more fuel. The miles-per-gallon average is down to 20.8, from a high of 22.1 in 1987.
The prospect of higher prices for the foreseeable future is already prompting modest conservation. Sales of the largest SUVs have softened, while demand for fuel-efficient hybrids that run on gasoline and electricity is soaring. Still, the hybrid market accounts for only a tiny fraction of new sales, according to the news source.
History has shown that a shift to more efficient cars doesn't solve the nation's growing demand for oil. Ultimately, only development of an alternative to the gas-powered engine can break U.S. oil dependence. Last month, the Bush administration released the first installment of a five-year, $1.2 billion private research grant to develop a hydrogen car.