Raise the Gas Tax

Sunday, November 16, 2008

THE PRICE OF crude oil closed at $57.04 a barrel on Friday. That's about $90 cheaper than it was in July. The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline Friday was $2.15, nearly $2 less than it was in July. This is definitely good news for the battered American consumer. But we fear that the temptation to return to gas-guzzling vehicles, to drive more and to forget the painful lessons learned last summer will be too great to resist.

Our concern is hardly unfounded. As Post-Newsweek columnist Robert J. Samuelson wrote in his Oct. 29 column, "We've seen this movie before." A gas crisis leads to widespread calls for conservation, fuel-efficient cars and greater reliance on alternative sources of energy to help slip the yoke of imported oil. Then, as happened after the 1970s gas crunch, amnesia sets in the moment prices fall. One of the best ways to prevent a rerun is to raise the federal tax per gallon of gasoline. Mr. Samuelson made a worthy suggestion: Raise the gas tax a penny a month for 48 months.

In a perfect world, we'd like to see a gas tax that was the equivalent of oil at $100 per barrel. This would send a loud-and-clear signal to drivers to continue eschewing gas guzzlers for fuel sippers and mass transit. Automakers would get the message to speed up production of motor vehicles that meet or exceed the 35 miles per gallon by 2020 mandated by Congress last year. Instead of the money going to countries that have U.S. interests at heart in the same way a dealer cares about a junkie, the revenue would stay here -- and it could all be returned to the American people in the form of tax rebates.

Okay, we know that the world isn't perfect and a lame-duck Congress and president aren't going to make the tough but necessary decisions on energy independence: That will fall to President-elect Barack Obama. As he puts his administration together and considers his priorities, he faces the choice of playing it safe with incremental steps or going bold with dramatic action when he assumes office on Jan. 20. We urge Mr. Obama to take the latter course. The United States cannot afford to backslide to its voracious, polluting ways as it did in the 1970s.

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