Once again, sales of trucks and sport utility vehicles are outpacing car sales. Have we already forgotten $4 a gallon gas, plunging SUV values and presidential warnings of oil addiction? Are we driving down the road to renewed prosperity, or further dependence?
In their forthcoming book “The End of the Road,” local authors Joseph McKinney, president of Oregon Roads Vehicle Leasing and Sales, and co-author Amy Isler Gibson write that these price fluctuations reflect the challenge of adjusting to a long-term trend of decreasing oil supply, global warming and increased pollution from the unbridled rise of gas guzzlers. They also question the Obama administration’s plans to fund vast transportation infrastructure projects that will encourage continued dependence on the car and result in a continued strategic dependence on foreign oil.
Instead, the authors argue, we must redesign our roads for cleaner, more efficient, humane passage, with complete streets designed as boulevards for walking, biking and public transportation. Central to their argument is the need to dethrone the car and replace it with neighborhood electric vehicles if we are to reclaim our urban core dominated by the infernal combustion engine.
But why now, when prices are so low? Because they aren’t. In 1998 the International Center for Technology Assessment pegged the true cost of gas between $5 and $15 a gallon. Such external costs as government subsidies for oil companies, pollution-related health care, infrastructure needs not funded by gas taxes, military expenditures to maintain oil supplies, environmental protection and cleanup were borne by society, but were not factored into the price at the pump. Add inflation over 10 years plus two new wars, and the current true cost of a gallon of gas is even higher.
Because the price of oil does not include external costs, it is priced as a subsidized commodity, lower that what the free market would determine, perpetuating our addiction. As oilman T. Boone Pickens notes, this has led to the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world.
In 2007 Lane County residents paid out $637 million to countries such as the United Arab Emirates, currently building the tallest structure in the world. While we baked in gas lines last summer, Dubai residents skied their indoor winter playground.
President Obama agrees that we are oil addicts, claiming “… admitting to oil addiction without following a real plan for energy independence is like admitting alcoholism and then skipping out on the 12-step program.”
That demand will slacken with higher gas prices was proved last summer. People drove less, making beneficial changes such as walking, riding a bike, carpooling and trip chaining. But as the need for public transportation grew, service was ironically cut due to higher fuel charges.
I am an educator by training, but I don’t have faith that education can thwart addictions. Like an addict, we’ll do what we can to get our fix, even if it means turning food into bioethanol, raising the cost for ourselves and threatening the source of sustenance for those with marginal incomes.
Blame evolution for our predicament. Psychologists tell us that our brains are hard-wired to respond to threats that are close at hand. We don’t immediately see our mileage cut in half or twice the pollution for short distance trips with a cold engine.
In 1980, when oil imports accounted for about 30 percent of our needs, presidential candidate John Anderson called for a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax. Had we adopted that tax, the resulting decrease in consumption could have cut pollution-related health care expenses and reduced taxes that support military spending, now half the world’s total, most of which is dedicated to protecting Middle East oil supplies. Additionally, we would have raised about $100 billion per year to fund increased mass transit, additional bike routes, alternative energy, and improved roads and bridges.
But our addiction spoke, we rejected Anderson’s proposal as well as his candidacy, and we now import more than 60 percent of our oil.
So, we are left with the ever-present problem of how to raise the price of the drug to discourage the addict’s use. This will take an intervention from the top of our government to reverse an addiction to oil that threatens our nation’s health, wealth and security. And it will take our collective will and some inconvenience as we make personal changes necessary to achieve energy independence. But without this leadership and our acceptance, the addict will not change his ways.
By Jim Wilcox
2.12.09/ Appeared in Eugene Register Guard: Thursday, Feb 12, 2009, p. A9
Jim Wilcox is executive director of the BikeLane Coalition, which works with businesses, government agencies and nonprofit groups to increase cycling for short distance inner city travel. He was recently appointed to the Lane County Roads Advisory Committee.