Cheap gas tricks

These are unprecedented times for the U.S. economy. With the country losing more than 500,000 jobs in November, nearly one in 10 mortgages either delinquent or in default, the financial industry in chaos and the Big Three automakers teetering on the brink, we suddenly find gas prices falling faster than ever, from a national average of $4.13 per gallon in July to $1.63 as of this writing.

In the short term, we can all appreciate saving a few dollars at the pump. But with the country mired in an oil-related war and the Earth’s climate continuing to warm from the burning of fossil fuels, this is no time to celebrate. Instead, let’s remember: Cheap gasoline is an illusion, and the price we pay at the pump doesn’t come close to reflecting the true costs of a transportation system based on fossil fuels.

To begin to get a sense of the real expenses involved, consider the burdens taxpayers bear to maintain enough of a military presence in the Persian Gulf to ensure American access to the region’s oil. Our dependence on oil imports, most of which come from the Persian Gulf, has risen dramatically, from 34.8 percent of our total supply in 1973 and to 58.2 percent in 2007, and dangerously undermined national security.

The dollar costs of our military commitment in the Gulf are difficult to quantify, but a recent study by the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies provides a starting point, estimating that if there were no oil there, military spending in the region could be reduced by $27 billion to $73 billion per year. That’s an impressive range, but also a conservative one. Those of us who believe the United States would not have invaded Iraq in 2003 if that country did not happen to sit atop the world’s fourth-largest known oil reserves will be willing to add the $12 billion-per-month cost of the war.

Yet even the staggering military costs barely begin to tell the story. There are the social costs of driving, which range from road construction to the health-care costs of accidents and air pollution, and which ITS researcher Mark Delucchi pegged at $1.7 trillion to $3.3 trillion per year in a 1999 study.

And then there are almost inestimable costs of the climate change, which has been clearly tied to the burning of fossil fuels. There is no way to put a price tag on the natural disasters, crop losses, species extinction and economic disruption associated with global warming, but those costs are real, and we ought to bear them in mind every time we fill our tanks.

Earlier this year, with gas prices at their peak, Americans found ways to significantly reduce their time behind the wheel, driving 1.4 billion fewer miles in April 2008 than the same month in 2007. It would be a shame if the sudden—and almost certainly temporary—plunge in gas prices sent us back to our gas-guzzling ways. The true costs are much too high.