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Tom Keane

Bring on the gas hikes

Until we feel pain at the pump, sermons on conservation ring hollow

By Tom Keane
May 18, 2011

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THE LAST time I thought about buying a more fuel-efficient car was in June 2008, when the per-gallon cost of gas spiked above $4. There was a sense of panic amongst us drivers back then, with some experts warning prices would climb even higher — to $6 or more.

But I hesitated, and my vacillation was well-rewarded. Three months later, prices fell like a rock, dropping to $1.59 by the end of the year. All of you who had paid a premium for a new Prius had been fooled. Meanwhile I kept driving my 18 mpg Honda Pilot. Lousy fuel economy, true, but really, why should I care? Gas was cheap. Some people fondly remember when gas was under 50 cents, but — adjusted for inflation — the $2 or less I was paying was actually as low as it had ever been.

Nowadays, admittedly, I’m starting to get nervous again. The average price of gas in the United States has climbed to $3.90 a gallon. In Boston — according to GasBuddy.com — it’s higher: $3.93 at a Hess in South Boston; $4.29 at the Shell at Massachusetts and Columbus avenues. A fill-up costing over $70 can definitely leave one nonplussed. I find myself spending more time than usual poring over the automotive pages, reading reviews and getting prices for hybrids and other small cars. I’m even wondering whether it might make sense to invest in an all-electric like the Volt.

But I think, like before, I’m going to wait it out. “Peak oil’’ theorists argue that someday soon — maybe even now — we’re going to run out of new oil supplies and prices will rise permanently. Maybe. But today’s rise seems more ephemeral, a consequence of the Arab Spring, the newly reviving economy, and speculation by oil traders. Indeed, a week ago per-barrel prices were almost $105. Now they are down in the high $90s. Gas, I’m betting, will soon be inexpensive again.

Some probably find this anti-green attitude appalling. There is, many would likely point out, a real cost to oil that I’m missing. Our dependence on imports from the Middle East means that our economic interests are inextricably tied to that deeply troubled part of the world, embroiling us in wars that — absent oil — we almost certainly wouldn’t be fighting. Moreover, carbon-based fuels such as petroleum emit CO2, the cause of global climate change. Motor fuels account for 47 percent of the 19.1 million barrels the United States consumes every day. If we could just double our fuel efficiency from today’s average of 22.6 mpg (easy to do if everyone drove a hybrid), we’d consume 1.6 billion barrels less annually — almost equal to the amount we import each year. That alone would dramatically cut carbon emissions and would probably give us the political latitude to manage our relationships in the Middle East far differently than we do now.

All of that may be true. But economics is the principal driver of our behavior. War and global climate change are no doubt a true cost of oil, but they’re not reflected at the pump. And as long as the pump price for gas is cheap, I — and millions of other Americans — will continue to act as if it is, in fact, cheap. In other words, we’ll be wasteful.

To change that, the price of gas would have to be higher. But the reaction from Washington to the recent price rise has gone in exactly the opposite direction. Far from being happy about expensive gas and the energy conservation that it would induce, Democrats and Republicans alike are trying to push prices down. There are proposals to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Pols are saying they’ll get tough on price gougers. And President Obama has just announced he’ll be pushing for more domestic drilling.

“Drill, baby, drill’’ is apparently now a bipartisan slogan.

Of course, they are simply responding to what we, the public, are telling them. We may say we favor cutting oil use, but we still want cheap gas. The two notions are incompatible. Sermons about conserving and gauzy ads about being green don’t work. If you really want me to reduce my gasoline consumption, you have to make it worth my while.

Tom Keane writes regularly for the Globe.