Electoral Politics Cancel Out Brave Calls to Raise Gas Tax

By Warren Brown
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Here's hoping that members of Congress got some rest on their summer vacation, that they will return to Washington refreshed and wiser and ready to come up with a national energy policy that makes sense.

But here's betting that those hopes are in vain.

Elections are approaching and nothing makes sense, certainly nothing as complicated as a federal energy policy, or anything that would require an electorate that often is lazy about voting to assume responsibility and bear a reasonable share of the burden for helping to lessen our dependence on oil.

Thus, in the matter of energy conservation, be ready to be treated to political circus masquerading as policymaking. The House will consider legislation approved by the Senate before its summer departure -- a bill demanding that automobile manufacturers increase the fuel economy of their new-vehicle fleets an average of 10 miles per gallon over the next 10 years. This jingoistic "10 in 10" proposal is supposed to raise the fuel economy of all light-duty vehicles (cars, pickups, vans and those hated sport-utility models) from the current average of 25 to 35 mpg by 2020.

It sounds good. Who does not want more fuel-efficient vehicles? It's politically convenient. After all, we all know that we could save more fuel if those car companies stopped messing around and started producing cars and trucks that could go farther on less gasoline.

Never mind that most of us easily could save 5 mpg or more by doing what we mostly refuse to do, which is to slow down. Never mind that we throw away millions of gallons annually idling in fast-food lines that aren't fast, or driving into the midst of downtown areas during rush hours in which we can rush nowhere because the streets are jam-packed with motorists like us. Fuel conservation is a problem for other people. Make them pay.

Following that logic, the Senate put nothing in its bill -- not one sentence, not one word -- that would require consumers to do or pay anything more for energy conservation. No one running for office wants to upset those relatively few voters who actually vote.

Consider gasoline prices. They fell considerably in August. They are likely to continue dropping this fall and winter. At least, they are not likely anytime soon to match early summer's gasoline prices, which topped $3 a gallon for regular unleaded.

We are expected to believe that this fortuitous drop in gasoline prices has absolutely nothing to do with the coming elections or with the political fortunes of lawmakers who, only recently, were calling for federal investigations into alleged price-gouging at the pump. No. The recent precipitous decline in gasoline prices wholly is the result of market functions -- more refineries coming online, lower consumer demand, fewer refinery problems, that sort of thing.

It is as if the U.S. petroleum market somehow has managed to divorce itself form the global market, the same one that President Bush warned us about in January when he told consumers to be more realistic about gasoline prices in a world that is struggling to keep up with global demand for oil. In other words, as the president told a corporate audience in Delaware the day after his State of the Union address, rising global demand for a dwindling resource means that prices for that resource inevitably will rise.

But there is a kind of a hush over the topic of demand-availability-price as the lawmakers rush to produce what they think is a politically attractive conservation solution: mandated higher corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards without any concomitant consumer requirement.

Even groups such as Consumers Union and the Consumers Federation of America are going along with that ruse, arguing that the imposition of anything such as a higher gasoline tax or a carbon tax is "politically impossible" and would do nothing except stall the movement toward better fuel efficiency.

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