A gas tax to save the auto industry, possibly the planet

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Dan Sperling, director of the UC Davis Institute for Transportation Studies, and transportation policy consultant Deborah Gordon propose using a variable gasoline tax to set a minimum price of $3.50 for a gallon of gas. If the price at the pump falls below this, the tax would kick in to make up the difference; if it goes above, it would disappear.

Proceeds from the tax could go — at least initially — as loan guarantees to struggling U.S. automakers, but with strings attached. Detroit’s Big 3 would have to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles, and drop their resistance to fuel-efficiency and carbon emission standards, Sperling and Gordon write. The gas tax would relieve taxpayers from loaning money to the car companies from other sources, and also create market incentives for people to buy more efficient vehicles.

Minnpost.com columnist Steve Berg takes up the idea, noting that while cheap gasoline might be a short-term benefit for Americans, “Celebrating cheap gasoline at this juncture is like inviting a man making good progress on his diet to lunch at the Old Country Buffet. A relapse is likely.”

Berg further notes that the new administration could be receptive:

Obama said exactly the right thing in his “60 Minutes” interview. Asked if cheaper oil makes change on energy policy less important, the president-elect insisted that past patterns must be broken.

“We go from shock to trance,” he said. “You know, oil prices go up, gas prices at the pump go up, everybody goes into a flurry of activity. And then the prices go back down and suddenly we act like it’s not important, and we start, you know, filling up our SUVs again. And, as a consequence, we never make any progress. It’s part of the addiction, all right. That has to be broken. Now is the time to break it.”

Sperling and Gordon are the authors of a forthcoming book, “Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability.”Sperling will also appear on NPR’s Science Friday show tomorrow, June 21, broadcasting 11 am to 1 pm on your local public radio station or listen online at www.sciencefriday.com.

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