Higher gas prices are just what America needs

By Amy Allen

If you’re on an elevator with a stranger, gas prices rank right up there with the frigid Illinois weather as a guranteed conversation starter. Every 10-cent drop is met with joy and relief, and motorists everywhere feel an attack of road rage every time the two (or worse, the three) appears to the left of the decimal point.

During the 2008 election, Obama and McCain sparred over ways of keeping prices low. Delivering low gas prices has become one of the most popular promises made by politicians. But higher gas prices are exactly what America needs to kick its fossil fuel addiction. In remarks at his confirmation hearing, energy secretary Steven Chu said, in reference to greenhouse gas emissions, “It is now clear that if we continue on our current path, we run the risk of dramatic, disruptive changes to our climate in the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.”

A higher gas tax is an important step in changing our current course by promoting conservation and fuel-efficient cars.

Americans seem to feel a sense of entitlement when it comes to low gas prices, like they do with not using the metric system or speaking only one language. The peak of $3.88 that average American gas prices reached last summer inspired demands for government intervention and a gas tax holiday, while Americans still paid lower prices that those in most industrialized countries. Currently, the federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. The average price of gas in the Midwest this week was 1.82 per gallon. Nationwide, gas prices are the lowest they have been since 2004.

If all the countries in the world were siblings, the U.S. would be the whiny youngest, with its fingers constantly smeared in petroleum goo. Americans pay less for gas and use more of it than most other countries in the world. In 2007, the U.S. used an average of about 69 barrels of oil per day per thousand people, compared to about 40 in Japan, and 30 in the UK and Germany. In Germany, gas prices currently average around $5.77 a gallon, and in the UK, $4.64. Japanese prices are around $4.58 a gallon.

All of these countries have a significantly higher gas tax. Of course, differences in infrastructure and geography also affect the levels of fuel usage in these countries, but gas prices have an undeniable influence on how much fuel people use and what kind of cars they drive.

The average fuel economy of European cars is 40 miles per gallon, compared to under 25 in the U.S. During discussions of the recent auto bailout, detractors bemoaned the fact that Detroit did not lead the way in producing fuel efficient cars.

But the reason that U.S. automakers continue to produce gas guzzlers is that with gas relatively inexpensive, consumers have no reason to say no to them. Examples from history show American consumers react to high gas prices by buying more efficient cars, but these periods of high prices have to be sustained in order to have a permanent effect.

In July, with prices at $3.88, the percentage of auto sales made up by trucks, vans, and SUVs dropped to 45 percent, from a high of 61 percent in 2000, but has climbed back up to 49 percent since then.

Every time I see an Explorer or Tahoe barreling down city streets (probably on its way to a gas station), I can almost feel another hole opening in the ozone layer.

High gas prices get people to drive less and in more fuel-efficient cars, but it takes an increased gas tax to sustain the effects of higher prices. Currently, the US has the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, put into effect in 1975, to regulate the fuel efficiency of cars sold here, but the CAFE standards have done little to change average fuel economy. Cars in 2004 got an average of 24.7 miles per gallon, compared to 23.1 in 1980.The failure of the CAFE standards shows us that promoting fuel efficiency cannot be done by fiat.

If the U.S. is serious about reducing emissions, it has to give people an incentive to do so. A higher gas tax is a bitter pill to swallow in the short term, particularly given the country’s current economic woes.

However, sooner or later America will have to recognize cheap gas as a thing of the past in order to secure the environmental future and prevent increased global warming. Better hope that SUV has a good cooling system.

Amy is a freshman in math and feels somewhat presumptuous about advocating a hike in the gas tax when she has never paid for a gallon of petrol in her life.