$6 per gallon

Could the rise in gas prices actually change our lives for the better?

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno. His column, Greenlight, appears weekly in this space.

Over the next few years, we the taxpayers will be laying out tens of millions of dollars to expand our Sacramento airport. Why? Because our local population is growing, so of course we assume our airport needs to grow, too.

Looking at past data to predict future needs seems like a reasonable approach to planning for the future. But is it? In a fascinating new book, $20 per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change our Lives for the Better, author Christopher Steiner suggests an alternative future. He makes the case that there is a finite amount of oil on the planet, and we’re using it up faster and faster. China and India’s growing economies have already sparked a dramatic increase in demand. Because of these pressures, the price of oil is going to go up—considerably.

Steiner, a staff writer for Forbes magazine, explains that if the price of oil increases, the cost of airline fuel will go up, too. He looks at what will happen when gasoline hits $6, $8, $10 a gallon and beyond. At $6 per gallon, Steiner predicts that people will dramatically reduce their driving, SUVs will become obsolete, more people will move to downtowns and increase their use of public transit, and sales of electric cars will go up. As gas prices rise above $6 per gallon, he suggests we will start to see sweeping changes in housing and shopping patterns.

And though people will flock to mass transit, the reverse will occur at our airports, according to Steiner. The cost of jet fuel is directly related to the price of oil. So when the cost of oil goes up, so does the cost of flying. Escalation of oil prices has already wreaked havoc on airlines, driving many to bankruptcy. On a typical flight, fuel costs can run as much as 40 percent of the total cost. When gasoline hits $6 per gallon, the cost of flying will skyrocket.

Increases in fuel costs will make it even worse for our Sacramento airport, because it will disproportionately impact short-distance flights, like Sacramento to Los Angeles. Getting planes up in the air uses much more fuel than simply cruising. And these short flights are the airlines’ bread and butter. You may be willing to fly to Disneyland for $100, but you might think twice when the cost is $250.

I do not know if Steiner is correct in all of his assumptions, but I would certainly bet that oil prices are going to go up. It seems obvious that increases in the cost of fuel will change many things: where we choose to live, the way we grow food and the way we live. If we considered this possibility when deciding where to spend our tax dollars, the future we envision and plan for might be a very different one.