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April 04, 2005

“Gasoline Is Too Cheap”

Gasoline is too cheap. That’s right… too cheap.

I’m tired of watching news stories about drivers moaning about the price of fuel as they fill their SUV’s. Enough already with the media hysteria over some conspiracy by the Arabs to strangle the US economy. These problems are of our own making, not caused by some foreign despot.

Let’s put gas pricing in the proper perspective. A gallon of gas costs less than a latte grande at Starbucks, yet nobody complains about the caffeine cartel. It costs you less to go 20 or 25 miles in your car than you pay for a gallon of milk. Yet nobody’s moaning about rising price of moo-juice.

Think gas is pricey here? Travel abroad and see what the rest of the world pays for fuel. In Canada it’s US$ 3 per gallon, in Europe it’s US$ 6 per gallon. Unless you live in Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, you’ll pay through the nose. Admittedly, much of those prices is additional taxes (used to subsidize cheaper mass transit), but the result is greater fuel efficiency and less traffic.

According to the EPA, Fairfield County’s air is as dirty as LA’s, thanks in part to car and truck exhausts. Moms obsess about protecting their kids’ health by buying expensive organic milk, but drive to the supermarket in pollution machines.

Face it. Americans have been spoiled for years with cheap gas prices. Adjusted for inflation, gas is cheaper today than it’s been in decades. So why are prices increasing now. Greed? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just a matter of (limited) supply and (insatiable) demand.

Depending on whom you believe, we have maybe 50 years of oil left in the planet. And yet, nobody’s really doing anything to plan for our post-gasoline transportation needs. Even the available high-mileage hybrid cars still rely on gas.

Where’s the equivalent “put a man on the moon” R&D effort to produce a hydrogen-powered car, let alone an all-electric vehicle? Nowhere. Even motorists who’d buy such a car can’t find one.

Instead, we are victims of an auto industry with a death wish. Detroit (and Japan) are co-conspirators with the oil industry to keep us good and hooked to fossil fuels. Like trained monkeys, we do the little “annual trade-in, trade-up” dance as the organ grinder plays on. Did you know that Ford makes more money financing car loans than it does by making cars?

We drive prestige autos worth more than a college tuition payment… and pay annual town taxes on those status symbols that are greater than the annual income of workers in the third world. And yet we kvetch about gas prices going up a few pennies at the pump?

Do we really believe we’ve sacrificed thousands of American lives in Kuwait and Iraq in the cause of democracy? In your heart of hearts, you know these wars are over oil; and our despot allies in Saudi Arabia know it, too.

As oil becomes scarcer, and drilling more precarious (as in Alaska’s ANWR) the only solution is to send gas prices higher to encourage conservation. That means smaller cars, better use of fuel-efficient mass transit and, yes, less driving. That will cut down on highway congestion and get all of us to our destinations quicker.

I’m neither a tree-hugger nor a Communist. I’m just trying to be practical. Sure, I buy gas in New Jersey when I can because it’s a few pennies cheaper. But I know that in the long run my grandchildren will curse me if the legacy I leave them is a gasoline-based transportation system we should have weaned ourselves off of years ago.

Let’s raise the price of gas and get on with the technological challenge of building a better car… now.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct