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How Air in Tires Became a Gauge of Candidates: Experts Endorse It As a Fuel Saver

August 5, 2008

By Justin Hyde, Detroit Free Press

Aug. 5–WASHINGTON — Tired of the usual hot air from presidential candidates? John McCain and Barack Obama have a new issue: the air in your tires.

Over the past few days, McCain’s campaign has needled Obama for saying that keeping tires inflated would save enough oil to obviate the need for expanded offshore drilling. Republicans tried to link Obama’s comments with Jimmy Carter’s exhortations to save on heating bills by wearing sweaters.

“We could save all the oil that they’re talking about getting off drilling if everybody was just inflating their tires and getting regular tune-ups. You could actually save just as much,” Obama told a rally Thursday in Springfield, Mo.

The Republican National Committee offered Monday to send reporters tire gauges as a stunt to mark Obama’s birthday, and McCain’s campaign sold an “Obama Energy Plan” tire gauge for a $25 donation.

“We need to offshore drill for oil and natural gas. We need to drill here and we need to drill now,” McCain said Monday at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania. “We’re not going to achieve energy independence by inflating our tires.”

But the numbers give Obama a strong argument.

Tire pressure checks have been a key fuel-saving tip that automakers, tire companies and government experts have recommended for years. On its fuel economy Web site, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that underinflated tires can shave up to 3% from a vehicle’s fuel economy.

Over a couple of hundred million vehicles, those numbers add up. The Department of Energy estimated in 2005 that U.S. drivers wasted 1.2 billion gallons of gas a year from driving on underinflated tires — about 61 million barrels of oil.

It’s a lot harder to derive an estimate of gas savings from more frequent tune-ups or other steps, such as driving slower. But some steps can produce larger gains: Changing a dirty air filter can boost efficiency by 10%, according to the EPA.

Figuring out the potential impact of oil available from the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere also gets murky. The U.S. Department of Interior says 17.9 billion barrels of oil are available offshore in areas under the federal drilling ban. Because of legal hurdles and a shortage of equipment, experts estimate that if the ban was lifted, it would take at least five years to produce an additional drop of oil from those areas.

The Energy Information Administration said last year that new offshore drilling could add about 200,000 barrels of oil per day to U.S. output — not enough to have “a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.”

Contact JUSTIN HYDE at 202-906-8204 or jhyde@freepress.com.

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