Kate Gordon and Cole Wheeler: Price of gas not as meaningful as its bad impacts

April 28, 2014 

We’re public policy advocates, so we’re always happy to hear that legislators are discussing our work. But we were less than pleased by the recent op-ed (“Hidden double-digit gas tax would affect Central Valley the most,” April 25, Page B3) on gas prices from Central Valley policymakers Sen. Anthony Cannella and Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, who cherry-picked citations and quotes from our recent report No Californian Left Behind.

Our report, released last month, argued that Californians across the state and especially in rural, car-dependent locales should have access to strong options to replace older, gas-guzzling vehicles with more efficient cars. In making this switch, these families would be able to save hundreds in gas bills and contribute significantly to reducing air quality problems in the very areas Cannella and Olsen represent.

The San Joaquin Valley, one of the two most polluted air districts in the nation, suffers an estimated $6 billion in pollution-related health damage every year. We made the point that replacing inefficient vehicles with cleaner and safer cars would contribute to California meeting its overall climate goals as set out in our state’s landmark climate legislation, AB 32.

Cannella and Olsen used no fewer than four citations of our report – each taken wildly out of context – to attack AB 32, arguing that the recent “astronomical jump” in gas prices is about to be compounded by a “hidden tax” resulting from California’s efforts to mitigate climate change.

Cannella and Olsen are absolutely right that high gas prices are a concern, especially in low-income, car-dependent households. That’s why our report calls for policymakers to ensure that these households are first in line for the benefits of California’s groundbreaking climate policies. These policies are already reducing Californians’ fuel costs: California was the first to adopt regulations requiring automakers to make vehicles more fuel efficient, and has been a supporter of electric vehicles, which use no gasoline. We’ve argued the state also should improve programs to help drivers replace older vehicles with newer, more efficient hybrid and electric cars.

The only way to truly save money on gas is to figure out ways to stop using so much of it. Oil is a global commodity, and its wild price swings have far more to do with worldwide markets and geopolitics than with environmental regulations. For instance, according to a recent NPR report, drivers across the country are paying more for gasoline today than they were a year ago, due in large part to U.S. petroleum exports – primarily gasoline and diesel – going up 25 percent to satisfy demand in developing countries. Oil prices also went up last week on fears that conflict in Ukraine would disrupt supply. On top of such uncertainty, operational hiccups at California refineries last week caused prices to surge even further. With all these factors and more contributing to volatile oil prices, the only thing we can predict for sure about gas prices is that they won’t stay in one place for long.

The costs of oil dependence on our wallets, health and climate are already unbearable. In reading our report for facts to support their anti-regulation agenda, Cannella and Olsen completely missed our proposed solutions. Rather than fretting over maintaining our broken status quo, we should be talking about how we can move beyond oil and how to help the households most burdened by the cost of gasoline reduce or eliminate their need for the stuff in the first place. We invite Sen. Cannella and Assemblywoman Olsen to re-read our report and join that conversation.

Gordon is vice president and director of the Energy and Climate Program at Next Generation. Wheeler is a Next Generation policy analyst.

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