It's Time for Americans to Chill Out About Gas Prices

Let's exert our energy figuring out how to deal with the root problem.

Gas prices this summer will top $4—maybe even $4.50—per gallon, and we’re already hearing about it. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has promised to bring gas prices below $2.50 a gallon (a feat economists generally agree would be impossible), while other Republicans are trying to lay blame for high prices on the president. Yesterday, in a speech at the University of Miami, President Obama fought back against these criticisms, arguing that “there are no silver bullets short-term when it comes to gas prices.” The reality: International oil markets, not national policy, have the greatest impact on the price at the pump, and right now international tensions with Iran are driving prices up.

And in the long term? Gas prices are going to keep going up, and Americans need to learn to deal with it. In May 2001, the year I got my driver’s license, average gas prices clocked in at $1.70 a gallon—which was considered high. A decade later, average gas prices topped out in May at $3.96 a gallon, more than twice the 2001 price. Demand for gas is rising, as average family income in places like India and China grows and more families buy cars. Obtaining oil is also becoming more expensive as companies move offshore or look to unconventional sources like tar sands for supply now that the easiest oil to reach is tapped out. This points to gas prices continuing to rise—to believe otherwise means avoiding the problem instead of facing it.

The second reason Americans need to chill out about gas prices is that we’re already underpaying to fill up our tanks. The last time gas prices started to rise (just about this time last year), our chart showed that Americans pay less than anyone except the dictator-led, oil-producing nations of Venezuela and Iran. (Plus, we pay way more per gallon of Red Bull.) Over the summer, the Center for Investigative Reporting took a whack at calculating the price Americans would have to pay for gasoline if we were to take into account environmental and health impacts: $15 per gallon.

But the most important reason that Americans need to stop stressing about gas prices is so we can exert our energy figuring out how to deal with the root problem. A better strategy than wishing for lower prices and believing politicians who promise to magically make them lower would be to take actions that will break the link between gas and transportation.

In his State of the Union and his speech yesterday at the University of Miami, President Obama touted an “all of the above” energy strategy—expanding natural gas production, opening new nuclear plants, and increasing cars' fuel efficiency. Natural gas and nuclear plants can make electricity cleaner and cheaper, thus making electric vehicles a viable, affordable option. And fuel-efficient cars will keep gas budgets reasonable.

Electric vehicles and fuel-efficient cars are good options. But the cost of car ownership eats into household budgets so much so that affordable housing without access to public transit isn’t affordable at all. That means that the best way to avoid paying high premiums at the gas pump is to avoid it altogether. Once Americans accept that gas prices will be high, they'll have more motivation to explore longer-term solutions. Denser communities with accessible public transit are a good option. So are sharing economies where consumers don’t have to own a car in order to use one. But it’s hard to start imagining those possibilities while fixating on the price of gas—no amount of imagination is going to drive it back down.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

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