Just don’t raise gas prices

North Amer­i­cans agree their gov­ern­ments should de­liver ma­jor change in en­ergy pol­icy — and they agree that they should not pay for it

Ottawa Citizen - - ARGUMENTS - DAN GARDNER Dan Gardner’s col­umn ap­pears Wed­nes­day, Fri­day and Satur­day. E-mail: dgard­ner@thecit­i­zen. canwest.com.

Any in­formed ob­server knows there is a long list of rea­sons why de­vel­oped na­tions should act swiftly and ur­gently to re­duce their re­liance on oil. We must do it to avoid catas­tro­phes like the Gulf oil spill. To soften the im­pact of price shocks. To im­prove lo­cal air qual­ity. To fight cli­mate change. To lessen the risk of peak oil. To en­hance our se­cu­rity and deny some of the world’s most odi­ous regimes their prin­ci­pal source of money and power.

It’s equally ob­vi­ous this has been true at least since the 1973 Arab oil em­bargo. Ger­ald Ford said most of what I wrote in that f irst para­graph. So did Jimmy Carter, and a long list of en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, gen­er­als, cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives, and se­cu­rity off icials. Even Ge­orge W. Bush said it.

And yet, the de­vel­oped world to­day is es­sen­tially as re­liant on oil as it was in 1973. How is that pos­si­ble? It’s tempt­ing to re­sort to con­spir­acy the­o­ries. We do love to hate those oil com­pa­nies.

But the re­al­ity is much more mun­dane. And de­press­ing.

It is this: most peo­ple are vaguely well-in­ten­tioned, but they don’t un­der­stand even the most ba­sic facts. What they know in­ti­mately is the num­ber on the big board at the gas sta­tion, and when it comes down to de­cid­ing what gov­ern­ments should do and which politi­cians they will vote for, that num­ber is what peo­ple care about more than any­thing else.

That’s a lit­tle harsh, I know. But con­sider the ev­i­dence. Last week in the New York

Times, Jon Kros­nick, a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, re­vealed polling data that showed Amer­i­cans were — con­trary to wide­spread be­lief — deeply sup­port­ive of ac­tion on cli­mate change. That point is con­tested. (Kros­nick’s poll seems to be an out­lier.) But the key point for my pur­poses here is the con­trast be­tween the en­ergy poli­cies that peo­ple did and did not sup­port.

“Fully 86 per cent of our re­spon­dents said they wanted the fed­eral govern­ment to limit the amount of air pol­lu­tion that busi­nesses emit, and 76 per cent favoured the govern­ment lim­it­ing busi­ness’s emis­sions of green­house gases in par­tic­u­lar,” Kros­nick wrote. “And huge ma­jori­ties favoured govern­ment re­quir­ing, or of­fer­ing tax breaks to en­cour­age, each of the fol­low­ing: man­u­fac­tur­ing cars that use less gaso­line ( 81 per cent); man­u­fac­tur­ing ap­pli­ances that use less elec­tric­ity (80 per cent); and build­ing homes and of­fice build­ings that re­quire less en­ergy to heat and cool (80 per cent). ... 84 per cent favoured the fed­eral govern­ment of­fer­ing tax breaks to en­cour­age util­i­ties to make more elec­tric­ity from wa­ter, wind, and so­lar power.”

So what do Amer­i­cans not sup­port? “ Large ma­jori­ties op­posed taxes on elec­tric­ity (78 per cent) and gaso­line ( 72 per cent) to re­duce con­sump­tion.”

“ Thus,” Kros­nick con­cluded, “ there is plenty of agree­ment about what peo­ple do and do not want govern­ment to do.” In­deed, there is. Peo­ple agree that the govern­ment should de­liver ma­jor change. And they agree that they should not pay for it.

Yes, peo­ple want a free lunch. Gar­nished with a nice pickle.

Ap­par­ently, the three-quar­ters of Amer­i­cans op­posed to en­ergy taxes are un­aware reg­u­la­tory re­stric­tions and man­dates cost busi­nesses money, and costs in­curred by busi­nesses are passed along to con­sumers. They also seem not to re­al­ize in­creased govern­ment ex­pen­di­tures — sub­si­dies or tax breaks, it doesn’t make a dif­fer­ence — have to be paid with in­creased taxes or in­creased deficits (which are in­creased taxes on the in­stal­ment plan).

Or to put that a lit­tle more sim­ply: there are no free lunches.

Un­for­tu­nately, Kros­nick’s poll is not an out­lier in this re­gard. Time and again, polls show large ma­jori­ties sup­port change, but they won’t pay a dime for it. Cor­po­ra­tions can pay. Or gov­ern­ments. What­ever. Just make sure they get their cheap gas, dammit.

In 1985, af­ter a decade of steadily ris­ing oil prices and steadily im­prov­ing en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, the price of oil plum­meted and Amer­i­can politi­cians re­fused to set a tax floor to en­sure that the tran­si­tion away from an oil-based econ­omy would con­tinue. It was ob­vi­ously the right thing to do and if it had been done the world would be a much bet­ter place to­day. But it wasn’t done be­cause peo­ple wouldn’t sup­port it. Cheap gas is a hu­man right, af­ter all.

This is not an Amer­i­can thing. In 2008, Cana­di­ans told poll­sters cli­mate change was their No. 1 con­cern, but they ham­mered Stéphane Dion for propos­ing a car­bon tax that would have vis­i­bly raised gas and other prices. In­stead, they elected Stephen Harper, who promised a cap-and-trade scheme that will in­vis­i­bly raise gas and other prices. Why pay when you can have lunch for free?

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and Con­gres­sional Democrats know what the polls say. “ In the af­ter­math of the spill, peo­ple firmly be­lieve Congress needs to do more than just make BP pay,” con­cluded Joel Be­nen­son, Obama’s poll­ster, in a re­cent pre­sen­ta­tion for the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers. En­er­gized by the dis­as­ter in the Gulf, the Democrats are plan­ning to push a ma­jor en­ergy bill through Congress.

What they won’t do is im­pose any di­rect tax be­cause, in Be­nen­son’s poll, 76 per cent of Amer­i­cans said they would be less likely to vote for any politician who “ sup­ported an en­ergy bill that would make fam­i­lies pay more for gas and en­ergy.”

That sim­ple fact ex­plains why we have made so lit­tle progress since 1973. Ain’t democ­racy grand?

JA­SON REED, REUTERS

A protest sign greets U.S. pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s mo­tor­cade on a visit to in­spect oil spill dam­age in Louisiana ear­lier this month.

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