Increase Gasoline Tax: Let's quit being cowards

Earlier this week I had a reader suggest the need for the U.S. to develop a nuclear fusion program so we can finally stop relying on fossil fuel for electric power (he suggested this would be a U.S. only program, unlike ITER, which is an international collaboration).  I mentioned that such a program may be nice, but I wasn't sure if the costs could be justified right now.  But more important than the costs to undertake such a program (if it can ever even be cost effective) the bigger obstacle is political will.  Will the American public really get behind a multi-billion dollar program to get off fossil fuel for electric power?  In short answer: not anytime soon.  Not in the current political climate.

But this got me thinking: If we could undertake a strategy to reduce fossil fuel consumption, what would have the best chance of getting the approval of the American public and getting through Washington, D.C.?  Not only that, what type of program would have the greatest positive impact on the future of the United States?

I'll tell you what I think that program would be: A gradual increase of the tax on the price of a gallon of gasoline.

Of all ways we use fossil fuel energy, why do I think we should first target gasoline?

Reducing the demand of gasoline - through an increase on the tax - accomplishes three main things:

  • Reduces our purchases of oil from regimes that want to see the demise of the US.  The reason many middle-eastern countries can operate as oppressive religious oligarchies is because they don't have to operate an international competitive economy; they get their $$$ and power from selling oil.
  • Protects the economy from supply shocks and subsequent price spikes that we saw in 2008.
  • Lowers air emissions that produce smog and other dirty air that is damaging to our health. ( note: I didn't even mention Climate Change!  Why? By not mentioning Climate Change there is a greater chance to gain bi-partisan support. If you care about Climate Change, then you obviously support any efforts to reduce gasoline consumption because transportation is a huge contributor to CO2 emissions. If you think Climate Change is still worthy of a debate ( or are so bold to call it a hoax) then that's fine, protecting our troops by limiting the funding to our enemies is the perfect reason to want to support reducing demand for gasoline!)

What would we do with the money raised from an increased gasoline tax?  Proceeds of the tax would split between funding research for new forms of non-fossil-fueled mobility (like electric cars) and paying for the cost of adequately protecting our soldiers in the middle east.

But alas, most politicians and Americans are too cowardly to support such a tax. They would much rather pass along the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to future taxpayers and let their children deal with a wealthier Iran/Venezuela/Saudi Arabia. Most Americans would rather simply accept their children who have asthma can't play outside on smog alert days than acknowledge that using gasoline  is one of the main reasons for the smog. Most Americans would rather have something cheap now and just deal with the ramifications later. To me, this behavior of personal selfishness at the sake of a stronger America is disgusting.

Taxing gasoline for the purpose of reducing foreign oil seems to be a no-brainer, but alas, our politicians are too scared to offend many of this country's short-sighted and ill-informed constituents.

So I said it: I'm disgusted by the American public's reluctance to take real measures to reduce fossil fuel, especially oil. Do you think I'm wrong? Do you have a better idea? Great, tell me in the comments. But make sure your greater concern is for the future of this country and the health and safety of it's citizens, not just a few extra bucks in your wallet.

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Another excellent post by Chris, with insight you don't often find anywhere else. I agree with just about every point, however, I do not subscribe to the proposal of increasing taxes to reduce our carbon footprint so, in that, I agree with Randy. On the other hand, I agree with Chris in his preference for diverting some of the money we waste on questionable wars could go along with to funding programs that would actually help our kids and grandkids rather than drown them in debt. Of course we would need the collective will to do such a thing.
Raising money for funding research in alternatives and providing adequate support for our troops and development in the middle east are certainly good goals. But, there is no guarantee that the taxes will be applied as desired. Unless the taxes are very high and sudden, gradual increases will likely have little effect on behavior (remember 20¢/ gallon gasoline and 50¢ movies?) - we just get used to the increase and accept it. Gasoline and fossil fuels are just too abundant and cheap to ignore. What we are lacking is leadership with realistic goals for sustainability and some encouragement/advantages for innovation.
Cap and Trade will probably pass this year with a lot of back room deals. Affected industries will get a pass on regulations if they make enough political contributions to the right parties or candidates. The American people are fooled by Washington all the time so what does it matter if we impose some more regulations on our people. The rest of the world already thinks we are stupid to hamstring our industries and put more regulations on our people so why not pile on more regulations. The President says that he will allow more drilling offshore if we will just pass his cap and trade legislation, which may require the US taxpayer to pay to fund energy projects in other countries instead or our own. The Secretary of Energy wants gas & energy taxes to rise so we have fuel prices equal to prices in Europe. Yes, this would reduce consumption of energy and we would all be able to drive plug in hybrids, light our homes with mercury laden lamps, or walk to work. We could do away with homes in the suburbs as this wastes a lot of energy. Our families would be better off living in concrete canyoms closer to work. We have not built a new nuclear plant in 30 years and we are not likely to have a new one operating for years huge advances in technology will be needed to allow our industries to continue to function. This will take an investment of trillions of dollars but the taxpayers will simply have to pay it. Most manufacturing is now done off shore but people who are not working do not produce excess emissions so we almost have the problem solved. Raise the price of energy so that our remaining industries are not competitive in the world, increase gasoline taxes to the level of Europe and trust our government to spend the new tax money wisely. They have done such a good job with all the taxes they collect so far! I am all for energy efficiency if the methods & truce costs are competitive with other existing products. I am all for investing in technology with private funds or with tax dollars as long as the industries are located in the US and the royalties from any new discoveries pay back the taxpayers first. I am for drilling off shore to reduce our dependence on foreign oil and to stop funding regimes who do not share our human rights values. I am for politicians who support American industries and our workers. I wish we could trust our politicians of all parties but this year, at all levels, I will be voting for people who are not in office. We need politicians who are not career politicians and who have common sense.
Chris -- a gasoline tax has merit, but mainly because it's simple to implement. I respectfully disagree with your other arguments. It is politically charged, and kind of misses the bigger picture (neither of which, I'll be the first to admit, seems to have any actual relevance). People hate taxes. The bigger picture is that a relatively small percentage of our carbon output is from gasoline (and even diesel, and even any liquid fuels); most is from heating and cooling buildings, and from electricity. Most of our fossil fuel use is not from gasoline. And it's not so much the fossils that are the problem: it's the CO2. Yes, fossil fuels account for a large share of the CO2 (and other GHG) production. While it's arguable that we have a short-term issue with the ever-rising price of fossil fuels, and also arguable that this single issue is the one that drives much American awareness or linkage to climate change, it's really not the biggest issue. Yes, I posted on today noting that oil prices have doubled in the last year, but it's just a symptom. A gasoline tax would only be effective if it replicated the impact of the kind of price run-ups we saw in 2008. But those were not in our control -- I simply cannot believe that a gasoline tax would be feasible. If it were, I would be a huge champion of the cause. In the midst of recession, fear, anger, frustration, hate and all sorts of other lovely things, I think we need to change the discourse from anything that would hit normal folks hard in the pocket. And, back to the bigger picture, a gas tax is regressive, and would therefore need to be multiplied several times in order to result in the desired impacts (yes, security, but also, yes, reduction of CO2 and GHG's). Whether you favor cap and trade, or CO2 tax, the solution is to get on board with recognizing that things like energy security, and even health care are simply short-term issues. We can address them, to be sure. But getting some direction, and motivation, and clarity on climate change is far, far more important. Climate change is like health care in some ways: left to our own idiocy we would debate it for decades to come (as we have debated it already for decades past). But climate change is unlike health care in that the cost of inaction is not an incremental thing: it's exponential -- failing to act for another 6 months now is like failing to act for another year 12 months ago. Climate change is progressing exponentially; climate change legislation is progressing minimally. All said, I do agree that the same BS that almost derailed health care could derail anything associated with climate change, if only because it is complex beyond the imaginations of most people. In complexity there is the opportunity for the fear mongering to gain traction. "Fair and balanced" networks could decide that (having failed to derail health care) climate change is the next big thing. But feeling slightly less despondent about the inadequacies of our country today, I say, to heck with the voices of fear, hate and regressive thinking: let's have courage still and really take on the problem that, above all others, will define our response to the challenges of the 21st century. History will look back on today's health care bill and say, at best that we finally managed to stop shooting ourselves in the foot. In the case of climate change, we have an opportunity to be better and anti-regressive ... if we're lucky. Tom
I don't have the facts, merely putting this out there for thought: did drastically raising cigarette taxes in states like NY and NJ have any effect on smoking? From my observations, no. Do you really think raising gasoline taxes will have a substantial impact on gasoline use or will it just piss people off? Don't get me wrong, I am all for reducing environmental impact. I just don't think taxation is the way to go. I for one, have a 9.72kW solar electric system on my house and I will be buying a used Prius and converting it to a plugin. Mass transit is not an option for me or my wife but we both have very short commutes so we don't burn much fuel commuting.
Good points, but what about raising money for funding research in alternatives and providing adequate support for our troops and development in the middle east?
Tom, that was an excellent reply/constructive rebuttal. I do take issue with this statement: "The bigger picture is that a relatively small percentage of our carbon output is from gasoline (and even diesel, and even any liquid fuels); most is from heating and cooling buildings, and from electricity. Most of our fossil fuel use is not from gasoline." According to the EPA, the 2006 CO2 emissions by sector and type, the amount of CO2 generated by the burning of coal for electricity generation is nearly identical to the amount of CO2 generated by the burning of petroleum in transportation. They appear to be equally large of sources. Overall electricity generation based CO2 is boosted by the additive emissions from the use of natural gas. (see chart #2) Chris: I agree, we need increased fuel taxes for personal transportation, and very stringent rules in place that wouldn't allow those taxes to go to any other use, other than the improvement of domestic energy independence.

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