Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times last weekend reaffirmed his commitment to a federal $1-a-gallon tax on gasoline. He noted,
By adamantly refusing to do anything to improve energy conservation in America, or to phase in a $1-a-gallon gasoline tax on American drivers, or to demand increased mileage from Detroit’s automakers, or to develop a crash program for renewable sources of energy, the Bush team is — as others have noted — financing both sides of the war on terrorism.
Then he specifically addresses the gas tax:
What would that buy? It would buy reform in some of the worst regimes in the world, from Tehran to Moscow. It would reduce the chances that the U.S. and China are going to have a global struggle over oil – which is where we are heading. It would help us to strengthen the dollar and reduce the current account deficit by importing less crude. It would reduce climate change more than anything in Kyoto. It would significantly improve America’s standing in the world by making us good global citizens. It would shrink the budget deficit. It would reduce our dependence on the Saudis so we could tell them the truth. (Addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.)
We could use the revenue from a $1-a-gallon tax on gas to finance our effort to find alternative fuel sources and reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil. More importantly, by adding $1 to the cost of each gallon, we would reduce consumption, which would also reduce our dependence on Persian Gulf oil. A reduction in consumption would also reduce emission of global warming gases, help cut the number of motorists who die each year in car accidents and, perhaps most importantly, help rein in sprawl.
Speaking of sprawl, suburbs are getting plenty of attention lately from those who say that it is the ultimate form of human habitat yet devised, and those who call it a fifty-year aberration that is bound to end in the coming decades as oil becomes increasingly scarce and alternative fuels fail to materialize. On the one hand, you have David Brooks, also of The Times, who argues in On Paradise Drive that American-style suburbs will shape development in other countries, and that, as Publisher’s Weekly puts it, “the New York Times op-ed columnist tells readers it’s okay to consume, consume, consume-so long as they look toward the future while doing so.” That’s just the way to soothe us free-spending Americans, sell a lot of books and make a lot of people feel better about their unsustainable behavior. But anyone who looks toward the future would realize that it’s not okay to consume, consume, consume because that is what is getting us into the economic, environmental and geopolitical trouble we’re in right now. Meanwhile, Joel Kotkin, the author of Rule, Suburbia, lauds suburbs for having “half the poverty of the urban core.” Of course, suburbs have half the poverty of the urban core. The escapist mentality that built the suburbs was at best about ignoring the poor and leaving them behind in the cities. At worst, it was about actively excluding the poor, as evidenced by suburbs that zoned out or regulated out affordable housing. Having half the poverty of urban areas is a condemnation of the suburbs, not something to praise. In any event, it is a defining characteristic of suburbia, not something to find as a remarkable indicator of success.
But all this is practically a moot point for the folks who have brought up the peak oil meme and tend to describe it as, oh, things like “the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced.” A video entitled The End of Suburbia, is out, using talking heads to describe just that. The thinking is that oil production follows something like a bell curve of production, and that we are just now reaching our maximum production capacity for oil. They see oil as an irreplacable magic substance that allows us to get something for nothing: lots of energy output with little energy invested. Just as ever more plentiful oil allowed for the meteoric growth of the suburbs in postwar America, our suburbs and national economy will undergo a horrifically painful contraction on the downslope of this bell curve.
James Howard Kunstler often talks about the need for a strong national rail system to help mitigate the prolems that will arise from the oil crunch. As driving and flying become more expensive in real terms, we will again need our rail transport system in place. But the Bush administration is shortsightedly trying to save a few bucks in the short term by bringing about the collapse of our national rail system. If or when the oil crunch gets more severe it will be harder to restart national rail if it has ceased to exist. Why do our policy makers feel that it is okay for government to subsidize airlines and highways but not rail service? Even with today’s low fuel charges, the airlines are struggling to remain solvent, and jet fuel prices are going nowhere but up. As of now, Amtrak provides the only alternative to oil-hungry cars and airlines, yet this is the one piece of the three that the Bush administration wants to cut.
Some links about peak oil:
- Simmons & Company International
- Prof. Kenneth S. Deffeyes
- Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas
- Post Carbon Institute
- Life After the Oil Crash
- Hubbert Peak of Oil Production
- Community Solution to Peak Oil
- Peak Oil Action