Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Texas Tea

Lately, oil prices have been falling like a rock. Gas, too, has been dropping. As of November 17, the national average for a gallon of regular unleaded was down to just $2.07. I can still remember when I had a learner's permit, you could get it for $0.79.

I was under the impression that most Americans understood that the recent price drop was due to a reduction in demand, but I've heard some comments in the last week which have liberated me of that opinion. The truth of the matter is that because the economy is in the toilet, people are driving less. Once the economy recovers, we'll have the same supply issues as before. This is no time to stop our efforts at reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

Still, reduced gas prices seem to have at least partially contributed to the defeat of transit ballot measures in Saint Louis and Kansas City on election day. The oil crisis is not over, it's just on hold because of the recession.

And that fact needs to be communicated to the American consumer. Right now, most are not in a position to make major structural changes in their lives. They're not going to go out and buy a new car, and they're not going to move further out into the suburbs. But they are liable to stop supporting transit-friendly and walkable community-centered policies if they think that life will go back to normal as soon as the economy improves.

I posit, however, that this is not a time like the early 1980s. In the 1980s, after high oil prices, Americans were treated to two decades of cheap energy, and they sprawled more and more. We need to realize that there aren't going to be two decades of cheap oil henceforth.

Even if oil stays cheaper than it was this summer for a while, it is going to trend upward in price. Failing to restructure our society for expensive energy only makes us even more vulnerable to the next oil shock.

While oil prices did not cause this recession, they certainly didn't help the situation. But it isn't oil that's the culprit. It would be nice to blame OPEC or China's (formerly) fast- growing economy, but the blame really lies at the feet of our lawmakers here in Washington.

By continuing to endorse sprawling development, by continuing to fund roads at a much higher rate than other modes, and by failing to tell the American people what they need to hear, the government has failed to prepare our economy for oil shocks like the one of Summer 2008. Now that the economy is tottering on the edge of recession, it makes it harder to create the necessary structural change. Certainly a New Deal type of program could create green infrastructure, and perhaps that sort of legislation will be in the works under the new administration, but this crisis in policy is something that has been in the making since the 1970s.

Unfortunately, America hit the snooze alarm after the first oil crisis in 1973, and failed to heed the wakeup call again in 1979. We allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of energy security by the gas prices of the mid-1980s. We cannot afford to let that happen now.

While oil prices are currently about 1/3 of what they were in July, they won't stay this low forever. Oil closed at $54.95 on Monday 11/17. I remember the first time it climbed above $50 in my lifetime. I was a sophomore in college at the time. I thought it would be temporary, but shortly thereafter it passed $60. I was hopeful that it would mean major change in this country, both politically and geographically.

Since that date, back in March 2005, oil has not dropped below $50.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't want oil prices to hurt Americans, but I saw no other way of affecting settlement patterns. Americans respond to economic incentives, as was indicated by the shocks of 2008. Transit ridership was higher in many places than it's been in decades and national VMT dropped for the first time since 1979. Suddenly, in the face of the mortgage and housing crises, we discovered that houses near transit retain their value better.

Americans value mobility, and were beginning to realize that the car was not the only way to get around--in fact, with high gas prices, being isolated in a car-dependent suburb was suddenly not as popular as it once was.

Of course a spike is bad. A gradual increase in oil prices would give Americans a chance to adjust, but a spike on the order of what happened this summer occurs too fast to allow adaptation.

Anyway, one of President-elect Obama's most long-lasting legacies could be a reduction of America's dependence on oil (foreign or otherwise). But it will take a huge effort to change the way Americans think about energy. Carter tried and failed. However, if anyone has the ability, I think it's Obama.

Good luck, Mr. President-elect.

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