Driving Is a Freedom: The Case Against Making Gas More Expensive

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The United States needs smaller cars, not more expensive gas

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This week's Working it Out question was: What one thing would you do to influence gas prices--in either direction?

My, how altruistic the Atlantic's commenters were! Most of them favored doubling gas prices. Why? Because that would make people drive less, and, in turn, decrease our carbon footprint and our reliance on anti-American Venezuela, almost-nuclear Iran, and other unstable countries that supply the world's crude.

I can't agree. After all, a 100% increase in the price of gas means that, with 100% certitude, 100% of drivers -- and businesses that use drivers -- would take a painful hit to their already strapped budget. And I estimate the certitude and benefit of that decrease in carbon footprint to be much too small to justify that onerous imposition.

Global warming is real )even if there are disagreements over its rate and its effect) but there remains a serious question of how realistic our efforts would be to successfully cool the planet. Sustainably cutting average global temperature by even one degree would require decade after decade of substantial worldwide compliance with severe restrictions on use of gas, oil, and oil's derivatives such as plastics, chemicals, and most construction material. Is that realistic? After all, despite 20 years of dire calls for decreased carbon usage, worldwide greenhouse gas emissions continue to skyrocket. And can we reasonably insist that developing nations, for whom oil and gas are key to closing the incomprehensibly large gap between their and our standard of living, dramatically cut their gas and oil energy use for the foreseeable future?

Doubling the price of U.S. gas would have a truly insignificant impact on global warming let alone, net, on benefiting our lives.

Thus I cannot support the idea of manipulating gas prices so they double as part of the attempt to force us to trade-in our love affair with cars for a marriage to the more time-consuming mass transit. Remember that no matter how much of that expensive mass transit we build, it will too often not take us where we need to go.

SMALLER CARS, NOT BIGGER GASOLINE BILLS

I believe that more worthy energy solutions will come from developing clean and safe energy: better batteries, truly safe-enough nuclear, fuel cells, and better solar. It will be decades until such technologies have advanced enough to become major solutions, so until then, we need smart policies around oil and gas, which brings us back to this week's Working it Out question: What one change would you make to influence gas prices?

I would raise CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards so that every vehicle manufacturer's fleet of cars and light trucks would, by 2025, average 100 miles per gallon. (Automakers have already agreed to 50 mpg.)

Yes, that would mean that until a breakthrough technology arrives, more new cars would be small, which would cause some increase in car crash injuries. And yes, to accommodate apartment dwellers without a place to plug-in their car, we'd need to expand the network of electric vehicle charging stations that the taxpayer created a decade ago when it was thought electric cars were nigh.

But those are small liabilities compared with the advantages of a high-gas-mileage America, especially compared with more onerous approaches to energy-independent, low-carbon transportation. In addition to abetting energy independence and decreasing carbon footprint, the 100 mpg mandate would mean our cost-per-driving mile would dramatically decrease because of the better gas mileage and because the lower demand for gas would force oil companies to cut the price. Those cost savings benefit all of us significantly, particularly the poor--and with 100% certitude.

Driving is freedom. It should not be unduly restricted, especially when there are more potent and less burdensome approaches to energy independence and clean air.

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Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley specializing in the evaluation of innovation. His columns have appeared in the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, and his sixth book, just published, is How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School. More

Marty Nemko was called "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" by the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and subsequently taught in its graduate school. His columns and features have appeared in U.S. News, the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. The archive of his hundreds of published articles, his blog, plus chapters from his book, Cool Careers for Dummies, plus mp3s of his KALW-FM (NPR-San Francisco) show are on www.martynemko.com.
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