Saturday, August 21, 2004

Energy Policy Rant

Why, oh why, couldn't the beginnings of an oil crisis come in an off year?

Oil prices have been on the rise disturbingly. They have been setting records, spurred on by the specter of instability in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela and an extremely overreactive market.

Sadly, our current political climate precludes any sort of actual debate on the issue of oil prices and what to do about them. Short of military action against all the OPEC countries, there's not a whole lot we can do on the production end - the producers, so to speak, have us over a barrel. Our goal, then, must be to lower consumption of gasoline. The advantages of lower consumption are twofold: limiting demand will drive down the cost of crude and give us more leverage in our foreign policy.

Of course, no candidate who actually wants to get elected can come out and say "consume less gasoline." That would be about as appreciated as telling a kindergarten class that Santa doesn't exist. Kerry and Bush, to their credit, provide proposals to wean us from foreign oil, but none hint at the sacrifice on our part that will be necessary to combat this problem. (Badnarik's website fails to address the issue.)

Kerry proposes research and development money for alternative energy sources, which is admirable as a long-term goal. (I also like it since it's my probable career path.) He also proposes tax credits for companies that develop more fuel-efficient cars. Bush intends to concentrate on increasing domestic oil production, especially by drilling in ANWR, but I believe this will solve nothing. To my knowledge he has proposed little else. (His energy policy is elusive on his website.)

However, both candidates have disgracefully cast aside a possible solution to our out-of-control consumption - a higher gas tax. Commentators such as David Ignatius and Charles Krauthammer have offered intelligent columns supporting an increased gas tax. Alas, a civil discussion on the merits of a gas tax is impossible, since it has become a huge political issue: Bush and Kerry attack each other regularly for supporting such a tax.

The gas tax does, indeed, have merits. It is the most obvious way to limit consumption; higher prices would make people think twice before driving the car instead of taking public transportation. It would generate more revenue for the states that they could then funnel into improving public transportation. Most importantly, a high gas tax would encourage innovation in both city planning and automobile design. This policy would provide both long-term and short-term relief from high oil consumption.

But at what cost? A gasoline tax is highly regressive; the hardest hit by it would be lower-middle- and working-class families who are already struggling to make it. The extra $20 a week for the commute could push them over the edge into insolvency, especially if real wages continue falling over the next decade. True, those living near major urban centers have public transportation available, but how much would that solve in the short term? Outside of New York, public transportation in our cities is horribly inadequate and cannot be repaired in the short term. This leaves working families forced to pay the extra tax without having an option to avoid it. Furthermore, those in the rural working class do not have the option of taking public transportation and often must commute long distances to work. These people would be extremely hard-hit by any gas-tax increase.

In short, I probably agree that the gas tax is not the way to go to cut production. But what is? Maybe a tax credit for using public transportation or carpooling would help - it still mostly misses the rural poor who live far apart and are forced to use cars, but it could create gains in the areas most likely to limit consumption. Portland, Oregon made a step in the right direction by forbidding outward expansion beyond a certain point; perhaps federal money for cities that follow Portland's lead would help.

Energy policy is a highly complex issue, and one that deserves to be debated extensively. The American people deserve to be able to understand all the issues at hand and the arguments on all sides of these issues. It's certainly one of the most important issues out there. Too bad it's an election year, so intelligent debate is impossible.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Yeah, that whole election year is a bummer for people like us who enjoy rational political discussion (or, as I call us, "radicals").