Raise gasoline taxes—really!

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Want to make someone hate you really quickly? Tell them you wish gas prices would go back up, and you think we should ask our legislators for a $1.00/gallon consumption tax on gasoline. That should lose you a few friends. Yet this seemingly illogical proposal might make a lot of sense right now, as America tries to move rapidly towards energy independence and a fossil-fuel free future.

What is the logic of paying more for gas when we may be in the midst of a recession, and the only good thing on the horizon is the possibility of cheaper gas prices for months or years to come? With $4/gallon gas, consumers were starting to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, driving fewer miles and generally becoming more energy conscious. The last time that happened was in the 1970s (1973 and 1979), when oil embargoes hit and we were faced with dramatically higher gas prices. Do you see the trend here? Oil prices up, we use less oil; oil prices down, we consume more oil.

The 1980s and 1990s, dominated by low energy prices, brought us to our current dependence on foreign fossil fuels and the rapid increase of carbon dioxide in our skies. In 1973 we imported 30 percent of our oil; by 2006 we imported 60 percent. Between 1985 and 2005 the average fuel economy of American cars and light trucks actually went down. Higher oil prices have been the most effective way of making our country increase energy efficiency and reduce reliance on foreign oil. It happened in the mid 1970s, and was beginning to happen over the last two years. It is likely that if cheap gas prices continue consumers will be lured again into buying larger vehicles and driving more.

Why a $1/gallon gas tax now? We need to make our economy more green, reduce global warming and become more efficient and competitive with Europe and Asia. The tax would fund clean alternatives to fossil fuels, especially wind and solar, plug-in hybrids, all-electric cars, light rail, high-speed rail and second generation bio-fuels that actually help the environment. Both presidential contenders were united on the need to move towards energy independence and tackle global warming. A gas tax would make certain this would happen in the most efficient manner possible. The money would go straight from being part of the problem to being part of the solution.

Why a $1/gallon gas tax now? We are very familiar with $4/gallon gas prices and it would be easier to live with higher prices now than having to try to adjust once again to high prices in the future. To have any chance of locking in the positive effects of high gas prices, we need to keep prices high enough for change to take effect. European countries tax gas at a much higher rate than in the U.S. Consequently, prices throughout most of Europe and Japan are nearly double those of the United States, and those countries, not surprisingly, are much more energy efficient, and are promoting alternative energy much more than the United States.

Why a $1/gallon gas tax now? With the economy hurting and job growth at a standstill, what the country desperately needs is an effective and environmentally responsible way to jumpstart the economy. The billions the $1/gallon gas tax would raise would go a long way towards starting new industries and getting the economy moving again.

Why a $1/gallon gas tax at all? No one likes more taxes. But a tax like this has a proven record: we often tax a perceived social problem and use the funds towards a solution. Taxes on cigarettes fund anti-smoking campaigns. Taxes on alcohol fund drunk-driving awareness campaigns. A tax on gas would work immediately towards ending two persistent problems related to fossil fuel consumption: global warming and dependence on foreign sources of energy. And the tax is equitably borne out: you pay based on how much you consume.

Will it be easy or popular? Of course not. But the best examples of America’s history are those where we see past our own selfish interests and strive for a greater good. In this case paying $1/gallon more in gas will help us, our children and many generations to come live lives less dependent on foreign sources of energy and more dependent on renewable energy. So go ahead and make your neighbor angry. Call for a gas tax now!

Ken Martens Friesen teaches political science and history at Fresno Pacific University. He drives a car that runs entirely on waste vegetable oil.

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