Need for New Priorities

If we cared to do the math, we wouldn't be quite so surprised. Americans -- who make up about 2% of the world population and who own less than 2% of the world's known oil reserves -- use about a quarter of all refined oil. We drive and drive and drive bigger and bigger cars.

As demand for oil rises, we are forced to seek out new supplies -- often looking to the world's more dangerous places for the crude needed to sate our oil addiction.

The result? Gas prices pushing $3 in New Jersey, where I live, and a lot more elsewhere.

I pass an Exxon station on my way to work in the morning. A few months ago, it was selling regular gas at between $2.10 and $2.20 a gallon. Now, however, it's posting prices of $2.90 or higher most days, a figure that is pretty common these days.

Think about it: $2.90 a gallon, or $43.50 for 15 gallons, which would take the average driver of a Toyota Camry about 360 miles -- an increase of $10 to $12 a tank in just a few short months. Just 18 months ago, a 15-gallon fill-up would have cost $26.96.

Essentially, we are looking at an increase in fuel costs of $60 to $65 a month -- and that's just for a one-car family driving just 360 miles a week. Double that figure for many and you can see the kind of financial difficulties that rising gas prices are creating for many families.

The rising prices and attendant hardship has triggered a political free-for-all, a "battle," as the New York Times wrote in a late-April editorial, "to see which political party can out-pander the other on the subject of gasoline prices."

On the Republican side, we've seen proposals for $100 gasoline rebates (wow, a whole two tanks of gas), suspension of environmental rules and drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve.

Democrats, for their part, are pushing a suspension of the federal gas tax (currently used for maintenance and construction of mass transit and road systems).

None of these proposals offers much of a solution. Each might push prices down, but only a tick, and at a greater long-term cost -- dirtier air and water and a bankrupt road fund -- than our pandering politicians are willing to admit.

And both are calling for investigation into why gas prices have been rising so quickly. I have no love for the oil companies, but I doubt that they're the sole culprits here. Yes, oil companies' profits have been huge and they do receive significant federal subsidies, but even if we tax excess profits (if we can agree on what they might be) and kill the subsidies, we're still left with the same basic problem.

Americans use far too much oil.

Individual consumers will probably need to alter their driving habits, including moving away from our love affair with the Hummer and the sports utility vehicle and finding alternate ways to get around.

If federal and state governments want to help -- and they should -- there are plenty of ways they can do so:

• Boost fuel economy standards to 40 miles per gallon, an increase that would be the equivalent of offering a $550-$650 annual tax break. "Increasing fuel economy by only 2 mpg would save more oil every day than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could provide at its peak," says David Friedman, clean vehicles research director for the UCS.

• Offer greater tax incentives to consumers who buy hybrid cars.

• Spend more on research into alternative fuels.

• Spend more on mass transit (and not just on large-scale commuter trains, but on urban bus systems and local shuttle bus services like the one proposed here).

• Redevelop urban centers and move away from suburban sprawl so that housing and jobs are more concentrated and highway travel can be limited.

And just as important -- if the politicians were serious about addressing the very real pain being felt by Americans at the bottom of the economic spectrum -- would be to move away from our laissez-faire economics toward something fairer.

Working families face a problem greater than gas prices, the New York Times wrote in an editorial in April.

"It's their vulnerability to the price increases, which results from stagnating wages and a lack of savings," the paper wrote. "If the Bush administration had devoted as much political capital in the past five years to wage and job growth initiatives as it has to cutting taxes for the wealthy, these struggling families would be better able to weather higher prices at the pump."

A change in priorities is in order. Too bad the folks in Washington have little more to offer than sound bites and pandering.

Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of two central New Jersey newspapers. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2006

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