Why cheap gasoline is bad for America

Gasoline is advertised for 1.99 per gallon at an On Cue station in south Oklahoma City, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014.
Gasoline is advertised for 1.99 per gallon at an On Cue station in south Oklahoma City, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014.

The other day, I heard an elderly couple interviewed on the radio about our current astonishing drop in gas prices. They gave a variation on “we’re on a fixed income, so every little bit of savings counts.” Like many Americans, they don’t have a lot of transit options. An article in The Economist this week said that the price reduction could save the average family $800 a year, or more. That’s no small amount when margins are tight.

Not everyone is broke, though. Low gas prices are putting us in the mood for new cars, sales of which are at their highest point in 11 years. Under these circumstances, we make odd choices, like besotted fools buying more diamond than we can afford. Sound the bells, because Americans are going to start purchasing guzzlers. This is what always happens when gas prices go down. At last, our long national nightmare of driving slightly smaller vehicles with slightly better fuel economy can end; the average efficiency of all new vehicles sold fell last month for the first time in four years. Once again, we can spend freely on our one true love: Gasoline.

We are insane.


Saying “gas is now cheap, so I’m going to buy a bigger car” is like saying “the price of bread went down, so I’m going to get a bigger toaster oven.” The attitude should be, well, gas is cheap, so I’m going to get a more fuel-efficient car and save even more money. But this is an all-you-can-eat gas buffet being offered. We don’t say no to a buffet in this country.  

I have a relative —intelligent, liberal-minded, at least vaguely concerned about climate change —who’s well-off enough to buy a Lexus. He was considering an RX hybrid, but decided to go with the regular RX instead, even though all the fixtures were the same. Why? Because of low gas prices. It would take him a lot longer to save the expense, he says, incurred by paying the premium for the hybrid car. He’s probably right. But multiply his decision by a thousand, or ten thousand, or a million, and we’re tap-dancing in carbon heaven. Any trace of environmental concern in America vanishes when the possibility of cheap gas appears.

I’m envious of Germany, so committed to an alternative energy future that it’s coined a word, energiweide, or “energy transition,” to help lead its population into a glorious Teutonic solar-powered age. You can see that reflected in the output of the German carmakers. The Volkswagen group, Mercedes, and BMW are all making enormous leaps in fuel-economy tech and alternative energy cars. Those cars have small market share, and will for a while, but they’re also emerging from a specific set of policies. They represent a different, almost annoying, European idea of what car culture should be.

In the States, we have different priorities. Despite the obvious environmental costs of car emissions, not to mention shale drilling, American politics are committed to the Constitutional principle of fuel-horkitude. Our incoming Congress, which would authorize fracking next to Old Faithful if it could, isn’t going to add one cent onto the current gas tax. If President Obama tried to do that via executive order, there’d be marching on the White House, and the marchers wouldn’t be carrying torches and pitchforks. In such an environment, carmakers aren’t going to do anything they don’t have to. Cheap gas prices make their jobs a lot easier than mandated “energy transitions” do. They know how to make fuel hogs, and we love to drive them, because we’re America.

Believe me, I understand these temptations. My colleague Mark Morford argued this week that “$2 gas is the worst thing to happen to America.” He lives in San Francisco and drives fewer than 6,000 miles a year. I, on the other hand, have occasionally clocked that many miles a month. I just drove from Texas to Arizona and back in a fuel-eating monstrosity. It cost me $90 less than the same trip in 2013. I’m about to drive to Colorado in a huge, ugly car that gets terrible gas mileage, and I’m not that worried about the expense. My wife commutes 250 miles a week to work. We live in a city that just soundly rejected a public-transit ballot proposal. I need to drive and I need to drive a lot. Few people benefit more from cheaper gas than I do. But I still agree with Mr. Morford.

Like gas itself, the temptation smells a little sweet, but is actually a deadly poison. Just because gas is cheap doesn’t mean cheap gas  is our birthright. We’re being deliberately led, or maybe we’re leading ourselves, to a dystopian car future that looks pretty much like the present we live in now, except the traffic is even more snarled, the roads and bridges even more degraded (because, once again, we're unwilling to raise the gas tax that pays for their repairs), and the end to our unhealthy dependence on oil nowhere in sight. This is a truly moronic moment. At some point, we’re going to have to back away from the buffet.