$5 Gas: the Pain Before the Gain

By Beacon Staff

We’re all feeling Pump Pain, and who among us doesn’t think that $5 gas is around the corner? I’m writing as fast as I can, in fact, so I can write this column before I have to fill up my pickup truck again, if I can afford it.

And I’m thinking that, perhaps, $5 gas is just what we need.

Gasoline prices have been rapidly increasing for years, but we really haven’t changed – not much, at least. Only months ago, we were buying Tundras and Hummers and massive RVs (Repossession-bound Vehicle) to pull our SUV (Suddenly Unwanted Vehicle) across the country – and saying that if we can afford this, who cares how much gas costs. As recently as March, we drove many millions of miles more than we did in March 2007.

With those who are getting down to their last $10 million, I suppose the price of gas will never matter. For most of us, though, even $4 gas gives us some real pain, but is it enough to change our behavior?

I’ve always had the suspicion that those folks in charge of oil prices (we can argue for years about who it is) had the research to know what our tipping point was – i.e. how much and how fast they could push prices up and not cause a lessening of demand. They obviously know that if they raise the price from $3.50 to $4 and then let it go down to $3.75, we will be relieved because prices went down – and hit the road with renewed vigor.

This time might be different. It almost seems like Big Oil (or hedge funds, OPEC, commodity speculators, or whoever is in charge) has messed up and let prices go up too much, too fast. Even OPEC insists that based on real market conditions, the cost of crude should be around $70 per barrel, not twice that. That smells like somebody might be losing control.

Especially when I hear the talking heads from ExxonMobil and Saudi Arabia on the financial channels worrying about the “demand structure crumbling.”

To this concern, I must ask, doesn’t this need to happen?

The longer gas prices stay in the stratosphere, the more pressure we feel to allow oil companies to drill in the last wild places like the Rocky Mountain Front and the Wyoming Range – and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, of course, which our lame duck leader has been targeting again of late.

Or maybe those in control have finally pushed us past our tipping point on purpose to get the green light to drill everywhere? If so, I say, bad strategy. I seriously doubt $5 gas will make us open our last precious places to fossil fuel drilling and is, in fact, more likely to foreshadow the more rapid demise of the internal combustion engine.

Hopefully, we’re wise enough to realize drilling the last undrilled places only delays for a few years or months the inevitable need to change behavior. It seems so much better to change now instead of after everything is drilled.

Here in the New West, I wonder how high gas prices need to go before people start moving in or near the city limits and stop spending $500 per month driving to work. Or for city councils to do their part to stop urban sprawl by prioritizing policies making cities more pedestrian-, bicycle- and pet-friendly. Or make true commitments to public transit.

Nationally, how high do we go before Congress passes legislation to require better fuel efficiency, change current laws that prevent electric cars from going over 25 mph on highways, give more incentive to non-fossil fuel technology and a hundred more such laws we ought to have?

We all know what we need to do, the changes we need to make to slim down our part of the “demand structure,” so no use repeating it again. But will we do it? Seeing $5 gas on the pump seems like something that might help us join the long-overdue revolution. Instead of complaining, let’s welcome it and consider it the big pain before the big gain.

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