As an environmentalist, I celebrate record gas prices that are finally inspiring people to drive less, take public transportation, buy more fuel efficient cars and raise the price of polluting, petroleum based goods. As a driver, even of a hybrid, I curse every time I go to the pump. I remember when it was a $20 excursion to the gas station, not a $60 one. A year ago, speculation was that it would take gas reaching $5 a gallon in the U.S. for people to start changing their driving habits, and current trends seem to bear that out, although with the financial squeeze of higher food prices occurring concurrently, it may not have to get quite that high. However, the calls for offshore drilling, more production out of Saudi Arabia and "gas tax" holidays are also increasing as the prices are.
Time Magazine had an interesting article enumerating 10 positive things about $4 a gallon gas. Among the good that can come out of it:
- Getting local as long distance travel and the expense of shipping make it more cost efficient to buy goods made close to home and keep jobs there, too.
- Re-urbanization as folks look to live closer to where they work and cut down on the cost of commuting. This means less suburban sprawl.
- Shorter work weeks to help save energy costs. Wasn't this what the technical revolution was supposed to bring us anyway; easier access to information and automation of processes so that we could all have more leisure time rather than being reachable for work 24/7? If the internet didn't get us there, it looks like energy costs just might.
- The return of frugality, something that has long been high on my list of social movements that need to happen.
- Fewer drivers on the road which means less traffic and fewer traffic related deaths (the number one killer of children and young adults 0 - 34 in the U.S.)
- A move to alternative, healthier forms of transportation, like biking and walking. Again, if record asthma, diabetes and heart disease rates couldn't get people off their keesters, perhaps high gas prices can.
In another article, Time writer Bryan Walsh does a good job explaining why drilling isn't the answer, even putting aside the environmental arguments against it.
...even if tomorrow we opened up every square mile of the outer continental shelf to offshore rigs, even if we drilled the entire state of Alaska and pulled new refineries out of thin air, the impact on gas prices would be minimal and delayed at best. A 2004 study by the government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) found that drilling in ANWR would trim the price of gas by 3.5 cents a gallon by 2027. (If oil prices continue to skyrocket, the savings would be greater, but not by much.) Opening up offshore areas to oil exploration - currently all coastal areas save a section of the Gulf of Mexico are off-limits, thanks to a congressional ban enacted in 1982 and supplemented by an executive order from the first President Bush - might cut the price of gas by 3 to 4 cents a gallon at most, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And the relief at the pump, such as it is, wouldn't be immediate - it would take several years, at least, for the oil to begin to flow, which is time enough for increased demand from China, India and the rest of the world to outpace those relatively meager savings. "Right now the price of oil is set on the global market," says Kevin Lindemer, executive managing director of the energy markets group for the research firm Global Insight. President Bush's move "would not have an impact." - Time
Just do the math; the U.S. consumes 24% of the world's oil but has only 3% of its reserves. And opening up the Saudi oil vein to give us our fix only puts us further in debt to that regime and delays the inevitable; we need to get off fossil fuels. Plus, recent price spikes have not simply been a result of supply side economics. They are in large part a result of demand. Increasing supply will do nothing to curb demand, will likely increase it and, as a result, may do little to curb price increases.
Those calling for more drilling and more fossil fuel supply are moving against the current on energy. The U.S. Conference of Mayors met in Miami at the end of June and adopted a resolution aimed at avoiding the purchase of high carbon fuels such as tar sands, liquid coal, and oil shale. This is a bold step, putting concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change front and center in terms of municipal energy choices. Even Texas oilman, T. Boone Pickens says "we can't drill our way out of this one" and is investing in wind energy.
Recently the city of Houston, in the heart of oil country, announced that they are now using wind for about a quarter of their municipal energy needs at a cost that is lower than that from coal and natural gas. Texas is showing leadership on renewable energy use while New Englanders missed their chance over complaints about ruining the view off the Cape. But the real triumph here is that the cost of wind is lower than using fossil fuels. And for the sake of the environment, our short-term and long-term health, and our security, this is exactly where we need to be - fossil fuels becoming cost prohibitive while renewable energy grows cheaper through new technology and economies of scale.