On gasoline

Sometime a long time ago, I led a discussion on gasoline for the “University of Chicago Environmental Center”:http://envirocenter.uchicago.edu/notes/gas.html. Discovered the notes for that discussion on the web recently; they’re reproduced after the jump, in case the original site goes down.


This discussion will touch on two main themes: pollution from gasoline
overconsumption in the USA and how to reduce gas consumption in the

On the first theme: per-capita gasoline consumption in the USA far exceeds
consumption in almost any other nation, especially outside of OPEC. This
is environmentally problematic because gas carries significant
environmental costs for air, water, and land alike.

Air pollution mainly comes from tailpipe emissions: CO (just deadly), NOx,
SOx, VOCs (variously components in acid rain, ground-level ozone, and
photochemical smog), particulates (implicated in many asthma deaths), and
CO2 (the principal greenhouse gas) are just a few that spew from America’s
150 million-odd cars and trucks. Water pollution also results from cars:
acid rain, as mentioned above, and toxic runoff from parking lots
(antifreeze, motor oil…) have severely degraded water quality and
weakened forests throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

America’s heavy reliance on individual transport — namely steel cages
with gas-fired engines, colloquially called cars — and the high levels of
energy they make available for personal mobility has led to the widespread
adoption of a suburban lifestyle. Trillions of dollars have been spent
converting hundreds of millions of acres of countryside into shopping-mall
parking lots, driveways, “business campuses,” and ten-lane expressways —
a landscape familiarly known as “sprawl.”

Sprawl also has a spiral effect; as suburbanization continues, people
drive more, which causes more congestion and pollution and sprawl and so
on. Some view sprawl as a colossal misallocation of resources, one of the
largest conversions of public goods to private gains in history; others
point to the market forces and preferences underlying sprawl and proclaim
it the highest and best use of capital in all civilization. (Yes, I’m
exaggerating.) (Sprawl has numerous social and fiscal costs as well, but
those are impertinent to this discussion.)

If we agree that gas consumption is a bad thing, what steps can we do to
reduce it? In other words, how can we break our gas habit? Currently, the
US relies on both CAFE standards and fuel taxes. CAFE standards (which
have recently been in the news) mandate that cars and trucks achieve a
certain fuel economy, e.g. miles to a gallon. These standards have not
been raised in many years and have certain loopholes; for instance,
minivans and SUVs are considered light trucks and have to meet a lower
CAFE standard.

Another approach to curbing consumption is higher prices, typically
through fuel taxes. Gas prices in the USA around half what they were in
1981 due to deflation in real oil prices and costs of bringing gas to
market; they’re also about one-fourth the current prices in most other
industrialized countries, due mostly to higher taxation. Almost all gas
tax revenue in the USA is dedicated to road construction, whereas other
countries use their gas taxes for general fund revenue or for all
transport improvements. Raising gas prices, some say, would internalize
the costs of currently external market forces (pollution, for instance);
others point out that the poor and those on fixed incomes would be hit
hard and that it’s suicidal, politically speaking.

Potential topics that may arise but which should be saved for future
discussions (unless silence descends upon the room, or something like
* Is oil exploration/drilling/transportation/refining environmentally
* Are carbon taxes a good idea?

* Is global warming for real?
* Are we running out of oil? Is this a problem?
* Should clean fuels, or electric cars, be promoted? If so, which?
* Are electric cars a good thing, or are cars just universally bad?

Links of interest

1a. Environmental accounts of pollution stemming from gas

of Mobility: Uncovering the Hidden Costs of Transportation

Divided Highways:
The Interstates
and the Transformation of American Life
” history, mostly, from a PBS

Transportation Action Network/TransAct

1b. Oil companies’ accounts of pollution (not as stupid as you

fuels and health
(from BP Amoco)

(from Shell)

Also of interest: “Statistical
Review of World Energy: Oil
” facts and figures on global oil
and consumption, from BP Amoco

2a. CAFE standards

Pro: Friends of the Earth, Road Hog

Con: Coalition for
(shill group for industry lobbyists)

2b. Higher fuel prices

Pro 1: (long story)Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, Optimal
Transport Pricing papers

Pro 2: (short story) Union
of Concerned Scientists

Con 1: Cascade Policy

Con 2: Citizens
for a Sound Economy
(how’s that for double-speak?)

Con 3:
Canadian Taxpayers Federation
(sees gas tax as only road user fee)

Also of interest: “Brain Food: Table
of Contents”
this guy has a creepily morbid fascination with a
forthcoming Malthusian “die-off” of humanity, but has amassed dozens of
links on how oil is running out faster than we think.

Also of interest: want another economics

[look. sorry this isn’t more thorough – really – but I’ve just spent two
and a half hours of this brilliantly sunny morning with my back to the
window, looking at oil company ad pages just for you. so be grateful