Sometimes we zoom down the road without knowing exactly where we are going. Then, it’s time to stop and ask for directions. When that happens on our drive to sustainable transportation strategies, we give a call to John DeCicco, senior fellow at Environmental Defense.
Should environmentalists feel good about high gas prices, considering how effective higher fuel prices are in getting consumers to switch to more efficient vehicles?
I can’t tell others how they should feel, but I certainly don’t believe high gas prices are a good thing. The high prices are causing economic hardship for many people, and transferring money away from American’s pockets—and the U.S. economy —without any benefits in return. The value people derive from fuel for driving cars (and shipping goods, heating homes, and so on) doesn’t go up when the price goes up. The roughly 40¢ per gallon that goes to taxes is used to maintain roads and other parts of the transportation system. But the extra $1.50 we pay when gas is $3 per gallon instead of $1.50 isn’t providing $1.50 in added benefits; some might even say that a portion of it falls into hands that do us harm.
The fact that high gas prices have motivated more people to pay attention to fuel economy is no more of a good thing than is, say, a fever after you’ve let yourself get run down, get sick, and don’t finally start taking care of yourself until you’re running the fever. High gas prices are a symptom of a collective failure to mind how much fuel we use, not just because it costs us money, but because it harms the environment and risks our energy security.
There will only be a silver lining on the high gas price cloud if it serves as a wake-up call for new habits regarding fuel consumption. After all, the risks to global warming and energy security were just as real and just as important back in 1998-99 when oil had dropped to $11 per barrel and the pump price was skirting $1.00 a gallon. I don’t know what the future price of fuel will be, but honestly hope it comes back down because otherwise it will continue to drain money from Americans’ pockets. So now is a good time to resolve to pay attention to choices we make that affect fuel consumption both today and tomorrow. In the car market, that means giving greater priority to fuel economy no matter what kind of vehicle one needs.
Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, John DeCicco is a Ph.D. mechanical engineer who specializes in automotive strategies for Environmental Defense, where he evaluates vehicle technologies and helps develop market-based policies for addressing the car-climate challenge. John was the original creator of ACEEE’s Green Book, which HybridCars.com references for the its Gas Mileage Impact Calculator and lists of the "greenest" and "meanest" vehicles, and he has published widely-cited technical studies on automotive energy and climate issues.