Gas, gas, gas

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This week, Sacramento gas prices are flirting with $4 a gallon. Filling up your car for the commute just got 13 percent more expensive than it was last month. Some of the price increases may be related to the lack of political stability in the Middle East, particularly in Libya. It is just as likely, though, the rising price of crude oil could be caused by speculation on the part of the investing class.

In either case, Americans still aren’t paying the real price for oil and gas. If all the other costs—the damage to the environment caused by personal automobiles and petrochemicals, asthma and other health-related costs from air pollution, the costs of our foreign policy to oil-producing nations, and the cleanup from oil spills like the BP disaster—were factored in, $3.89 a gallon would seem cheap.

Economists tell us that things like air pollution, water pollution, illness, even wars are “externalities,” costs shouldered by someone other than the gas producer and the gas consumer. These externalities are paid by the health-care system that cares for children with asthma caused by living next to busy roads and highways, by unemployed Gulf Coast fishermen, by our military men and women, and—eventually—those costs will be paid by our children and grandchildren as the planet becomes more and more uninhabitable.

The current gas prices have some people calling for more domestic and offshore drilling. That’s already happening; the U.S. government approved the first deep-water-drilling permit since the moratorium following the BP oil disaster earlier this month.

That may not help gas prices in the United States, since the oil companies are multinational and it’s a worldwide oil market. However much we raise production, it won’t be enough to make gas cheap. It’s a simple matter of demographics. As formerly less-developed countries with large populations continue to industrialize, demand for oil goes up. Yet most scientists believe we’ve already passed “peak oil”—the point at which the maximum rate of oil extraction is achieved—and we’ll never be able to keep up with rising demand. That means the price will only go up, no matter what happens in any given part of the world.

And even if we could bring down the price of gas, what would that buy us? More of that cost we can’t calculate, but it drains our society and kills the planet nonetheless.

Yes, we’re going to have $5 a gallon gas, if not this year, then soon. But the truth is, even if we know how much we paid for it, we don’t know how much a gallon of gas costs.

It is not too late to change our habits. Expensive gas is a good reason to use public transit, and to demand more and better forms of it. If we can park our cars for economic reasons, can’t we keep them parked for the same? This “crisis” in gas prices is actually an opportunity to do something that’s good for our pocketbooks in ways we can’t even begin to count.