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Why we shouldn’t be celebrating cheaper gas prices

We're on a dangerous consumer rampage.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Posted on Jul 22, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 7:32 am CDT

Filling up on gas is about as popular as going to the dentist or taking out the garbage.

But things at the pump may be about to get a lot less stressful for the average American. As President Obama continues to secure his legacy, the recent nuclear deal with Iran is causing gas prices to plummet in the U.S., with forecasters speculating that return gas prices could return to $2 dollars a gallon. This news will surely be cause for celebration in many areas of the country, such as California, where gas prices are pushing $4 a gallon. Meanwhile, the Iran deal has become a point of pride for many on the Internet, with enthusiastic liberals earnestly thanking Obama for lowering our collective gas costs.

Yet as much as cheap gas would be a blessing in many Americans’ daily lives, there is a definite downside in the long run. Given the environmental reality we are living in, making gas easier to get isn’t a good thing for anyone.

America is addicted to fossil fuels, and despite our efforts to rid ourselves of this addiction, the oil and gas industries have just as much of a hold on us as ever. “Obama boasts that American emissions are now falling due to rising auto efficiency standards and gas displacing dirtier coal in the energy mix,” writes the Guardian’s Duncan Clark. “But the U.S. is extracting carbon and flowing it into the global energy system faster than ever before.”

Our habits have a direct effect on the future of fossil fuels around the world. 

Take a look at our relationship with China, for instance. We export massive amounts of coal to the Chinese, and they use it to make products for us in a seemingly never-ending cycle of pollution. And if the Keystone Pipeline XL ever gets pushed through, global markets will become more saturated with crude oil than ever. This isn’t good news, given that fossil fuel giants are among the richest companies in the world as it is. As Rolling Stone’s Bill McKibben notes, “there are trillions of dollars worth of oil in Canada’s tar sands and the North Dakota shale.”

Much of this will surely mean little to the average American, who just wants to be able to fill up at an affordable price. But while there are ways for us to coexist with fossil fuels in the short term, we also have to remember that our habits have a direct effect on the future of fossil fuels around the world. Consider that when prices drop, Americans tend to buy more gas-guzzlers—which, in turn, feeds our need to constantly extract more and more fossil fuels.

The first step in this process is to reexamine other transportation and energy sources. Increasing public transportation would be a good start, as this has been proven to lead to cleaner cities.

Then there’s electric cars and hybrids. The electric car’s rise in popularity is especially significant, as it raises the possibility that America’s gas obsession might not last forever. And while electric vehicles have yet to be accepted by everyone, the stigma around them as “uncool” is dissipating, thanks to companies like Tesla. The last piece of the puzzle will fall into place when Tesla’s prices drop, allowing the middle class to get excited about electric cars too.

Speaking of which, it’s no surprise that electric cars and fuel-efficient hybrids are most popular in California, where gas prices are not only ridiculously high, but where the state has also created incentives to put these vehicles in the garages of low- and middle-income families—helping to solve that pesky Tesla gap.  

But electric cars aren’t going to save us when it comes to fossil fuel divestment. Another option would be raise the federal tax on gasoline. Gas is not good for America, and raising taxes on something which is not good for people is a proven way of discouraging them from buying it. Just look at Mexico’s soda tax. Within a year of implementation, purchases of the sugary drink by our neighbors south of the border fell by 12 percent.

And that’s not all a federal gas tax could do. “Adding 35 cents to the gas tax is equivalent to collecting a tax of roughly $40 for every ton of CO2 emitted by gasoline,” writes Jeffrey D. Sachs at Politico. “This is also close to the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate of the social cost of carbon that measures the incremental damage to the environment caused by each incremental ton of CO2 emission. The higher gasoline tax would support the shift to low-carbon 21st-century fuels, battery-electrics and fuel-cell vehicles.”

Our consumer behavior in relation to gas prices is leading us down a dangerous path. 

Sachs also notes that a federal gas tax could be used to help to contribute to the $100 billion the U.S. has promised along with the European Union and Japan to help fight climate change in poorer nations.

The sad truth is that without implementations like incentives and tax hikes, the only thing likely to help make this country less dependent on fossil fuels is a massive spike in gas prices. “Prices help shape consumer behavior in lots of areas, including clothing, food and housing,” writes the Huffington Post’s Brian Moody. “It’s the same story for automobiles.”

Our consumer behavior in relation to gas prices is leading us down a dangerous path. We’d be better off taking a cue from Europe, where small cars are popular, and cries for divestment in fossil fuels are starting to take a hold. Luckily, there is a growing movement online which you can look into if you want to join the fight. 

“In the Internet age, you don’t need direct mail and big headquarters; you need Twitter,” declares McKibben. “The Fossil Fuel Resistance looks more and more like Occupy—in fact, they’ve overlapped from the beginning, since oil companies are the one percent of the one percent.”

But before we can truly occupy the fossil fuel establishment, we have to stop celebrating every time gas prices get a little lower. Yes, high gas prices are awful. Nevertheless, our prevailing attitude toward fossil fuels is unsustainable. It would be better for us, and this planet we call home, to lose a little money right now, if it helped us move away from being a gas-guzzling society in the future.

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on websites such as Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, Chris enjoys making movies with friends. He lives in Los Angeles.

Photo via Matt/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Jul 22, 2015, 10:01 pm CDT