The US May Finally Get a Bigger Gas Tax. But Would it Work?

Photo via DC Streets Blog
Is the US Ready for a New Gas Tax?
The US has long had among the most minuscule taxes of transportation fuels in the developed world--blame it on our deeply ingrained car culture or the plethora of wide open spaces that make transit via automobile seem more like a need than a privilege. Either way, we may finally see a significant bump in the amount consumers pay at the pump--one of the anticipated provisions in the soon-to-be-released Kerry-Graham-Lieberman energy reform bill is a proposed spike in the national gas tax. But would such a tax accomplish its intended goal of curbing carbon emissions and deterring Americans from relying so heavily on automobiles?It really depends. Since the details of the bill haven't yet been made known (we're going of the information that's so far been leaked to industry and environmental groups), it's tough to pass a verdict on the gasoline tax idea.

A Useless Gas Tax?
Usually, I support the idea of an increased gas tax--higher prices at the pump would theoretically mean people would urge people to consider other transportation options, and make more fuel efficient vehicles more attractive to the consumer. But there's a lot of evidence that American's threshold for gas tax pain is pretty stubbornly high--that is, until it was raised high enough (some studies say over $7 a gallon!) most people would suck it up and keep on driving.

This would lead to an insignificant cut in carbon emissions, and would amount to a tax that impacted poorer drivers the most. And the problem is, it looks like this is the kind of tax that's going to be proposed--according to Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard, what looks likely is a mild tax increase, with much of the revenue generated from it returning to the consumer in the form of a tax rebate. As she notes, this probably wouldn't do much to alter driving behavior--and combined with the provisions that would include opening up swaths of land for offshore drilling, it's hardly sending the signal that oil is on its way out.

Wait, the Pros of a Gas Tax is its Political Feasibility?
So what is good about the proposed gas tax? On the surface, there's the feasibility of getting it passed--in a (suspiciously) rare occurrence, green groups, oil companies, and politicians have all voiced support for raising the gas tax, making it seem on paper that it has a relatively good chance of actually becoming law.

But I'm extremely suspicious that this will actually be the case--for one thing, the oil companies have been known to support strangely interest-conflicting policies (remember Exxon calling for a carbon tax?) because it makes them look progressive and green, when in reality they know such a policy can easily be attacked and has little chance of gaining public support. Sure, just go ahead and bump up the gas tax, the oil companies say publicly, and meanwhile the (oil company-funded) American Petroleum Institute launches anti-energy reform stunts across the country. Which is exactly what happened last summer (remember the Energy Citizen rallies?).

And the green groups that say they support the idea of a gas tax, like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, will almost certainly not be satisfied with the gas tax the senators unveil--and the supposed unity shared at the moment will unravel in no time.

It's Time . . .
Despite all this, I'd still endorse a gas tax, even if it wasn't as big as some of the greener groups would like. It does send a signal to consumers and the auto industry, and even if the change in behavior isn't big enough immediately, it will further pave the way for development of more efficient cars--and if the revenues were directed towards clean energy investment or the like, it would indeed have a positive net effect.

More on a Gas Tax
Bill Ford Supports a Gas Tax Increase
Car Talk Calls for a Higher Gas Tax

Tags: Carbon Emissions | Clean Energy | Congress | Transportation | United States