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What states might do in a fuel shortage

In the event of a serious interruption of oil supplies to the United States, use of fuel-saving measures now under consideration by the US Department of Energy and individual states could significantly alter the way you get to work, go shopping, and spend leisure time.

But the alternative to such changes would be long lines at gas pumps and shortages, says Hank Bartholomew, chief of energy conservation programs for the Department of Energy.

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The DOE has just proposed fuel-saving steps for possible use in case of a severe shortage. They include one-to-three carless days a week, odd-even gasoline sales, boatless weekends, and four-day workweeks.

These are not the only measures being considered. In addition to eight other possible steps the DOE is studying, a report being prepared under DOE contract for the benefit of state energy planners by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offers an even broader range of measures to cut gasoline consumption in case of emergency.

Among the options presented in the MIT study: cutting speed limits on highways to 50 miles per hour; adding up to 50 cents a gallon to gasoline taxes which would be balanced by rebates or lower state taxes; banning Sunday personal automobile and light-truck driving; closing certain state highways and urban streets to single-occupant cars during rush hours; increasing restrictions on parking in urban areas; restricting weekend use -- or even weekday use -- not only of private boats, but private aircraft and off-road vehicles.

"If in the long run we can get some of these [fuel-saving ideas] accomplished , we won't be in as much trouble," says Jill Verdick, energy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures. More severe measures were considered but rejected by the MIT planners at the Center for Transportation Studies. Among the rejected options: closing certain streets on nights or weekends in areas of high recreation travel, and reducing store hours.

But "even though those things have been rejected by MIT, in an emergency situation almost anything could happen," says Jill Verdick.

Already some state planners are considering ideas that go beyond the latest DOE proposals.

Tennessee energy officials, for example, are studying the effects of lowering speed limits well below 50 miles per hour. "I'd rather drive at 35 [m.p.h.] than not have gas at all," says Wesley Johnston, executive director of the Tennessee State Energy Authority.

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Staff planners at the California Energy Commission have put together a list of options -- not yet approved by the commission -- which include: a controversial 50-cent-per-gallon surcharge on gasoline which would be repaid through income-tax rebates based on average gasoline consumption (above average use would thus be penalized); a two-days-a-week prohibition on driving your car.

Under current thinking, at both the federal and state level, emergency fuel-saving steps would be imposed only in case of a severe shortage. And the DOE measures would not be imposed on states that come up with their own DOE-approved plans that meet presidential fuel-saving targets declared during an emergency.

Some 35 states already have an emergency plan, but most are "very vague," says Russell Frum of the National Conference of State Legislatures. But now that the DOE fuel-saving proposals have been announced, state energy planners are likely to design more specific plans, too.