Could Lower Gas Prices Be Bad?

Most Americans have welcomed the news that gas prices are falling, having declined an average of 42 cents nationwide in the past month.

But from the way some people are carrying on, you would think it was the sky that was falling, not gas prices.

Heading up the field is Daniel Akst, whose op-ed piece in The New York Times today lays out the case for the negative effects of lowering gas prices.

"Anything that reinforces the role of fossil fuels -- particularly oil -- as the world's primary energy source, is bad, not good," Akst writes. His argument goes beyond the one laid out by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address, when he announced that America was "addicted to oil" imported from "unstable parts of the world."

Akst takes this into consideration, but argues that this addiction's main danger is its contribution to global warming.

"Lower oil prices would promote more driving," Akst notes. He calls this "a dismal outcome" even for the short term, as it will lead to worse air pollution and higher traffic fatalities.

"And then there's sprawl," Akst continues. "Cheaper gas prices will mean more far-flung, automobile-dependent communities," which will lock in the vicious cycle of hydro-carbon devastation.

Fortunately -- at least from Akst's point of view -- some experts say we needn't worry about prices staying low for long.

"Gas prices historically lower at the end of the spring and summer driving season," says Mantill Williams, spokesman for the American Automobile Association. For at least the last five years the trend has been that once the season comes round again, both demand and prices rise.

But Akst, amongst others, would likely not regard this as enough. Like The New Republic magazine's ex-editor turned blogger, Andrew Sullivan, Akst sees "hefty taxes" on gasoline as a shining hope for the future.

Writing in April on record-level gas prices, Sullivan called them "one of the best things to happen in the long time." Taxes, he hoped, could raise them further still, because "only higher oil prices will actually jump-start the new, greener technologies we all say we want (and our planet desperately needs)."

The Department of Energy dismissed these arguments, however.

Energy Department spokesman Craig Stevens said the Bush administration was already "fully committed" to reducing reliance on fossil fuels, and pointed to the $648 million the government spent this year alone on researching alternative technologies.

Bush firmly believes that hydrogen technology will provide such a breakthrough that vehicles "will only emit water vapor," Stevens said.

Since the administration's commitment is already "sound and secure," there is no need for any more taxes on gas, he said.

Such assurances will probably not dampen all the clamor for a gas tax. Akst and Sullivan, for instance, both support gas taxes on the further grounds that even if the money were not invested in alternative fuel programs, at least it would cut down on how much people drive.

An ecologically sound fuel tax would show SUV drivers in particular that their gas-guzzling inefficiency has a broader effect on society at large, Sullivan said.

"If your wallet is empty because of all that gas in your SUV, you've learned a useful lesson in self-government," he wrote.

This claim, however, was rebuked by the AAA.

Williams said that even when gas prices were at their peak, there was not a particularly notable dip in consumption. For a gas tax to curtail driving habits effectively, Williams said, it would have to be "exorbitant."

Low-income persons would be "disproportionately affected," and there would be damage to the overall economy, he said.

These concerns are worries that have also occurred to some gas tax supporters, and they have an answer.

"The burden of higher oil prices, unfortunately, will fall most heavily on the world's poor," Akst wrote, before grimly concluding, "but then again, so would the burden of climate change."

With such long-term and short-term issues in bitter combat, whatever your opinion, there are probably only two things you can rely on.

First, that there will be no gas tax any time soon; the Clinton administration roundly failed to pass a general fuel tax in 1993 despite Democratic control of Congress, and the Republicans who control Congress now are hardly likely to have pursue the issue now.

And consequently, when the gas prices rise and fall next year, you can probably look forward to this whole debate all over again.