Why (at least) $4/gallon will make us healthier

This post originally appeared on www.mnn.com

Many Americans have been breathing a small sigh of relief as gas prices have steadily dropped from a nationwide average of nearly $4.00/gallon in May. But is the air we’re now inhaling dirtier as a result, given that Americans consume more gasoline as prices drop? For all the hidden social, environmental and economic costs of oil consumption, $4.00/gallon may actually be necessary for our own long-term health.

As the Center for Investigative Reporting shows, clean air provides far more economic and health benefits than it costs to achieve. Measures proposed by theEPA such as reducing toxic chemicals in gasoline may raise the cost of gas up front, but the public benefits far outweigh these costs: an EPA report estimates that controlling pollution “will prevent 23,000 Americans from dying prematurely…and 4,100,000 lost work days.” Traffic exhaust is one of the largest contributors to air pollution in the country, so making cars more fuel-efficient, gasoline more clean-burning or even (gasp!) driving less will have a large-scale affect on public health, especially in urban areas where many of our most vulnerable populations already live.

Beyond the direct health benefits to individuals and communities, higher gasoline prices and reduced oil consumption may be beneficial for other reasons, as well. It is well-documented that political instability across the globe, particularly in NorthAfrica and the Middle East, has a destabilizing effect on oil prices. With Libya, the U.S. is now engaged in three wars to protect our interests in oil-producing regions of the globe. Given the evidence, or lack thereof (WMDs anyone?), one might consider the $1,000,000,000,000+ we’ve spent on these three wars as indirect costs associated with oil dependency, stagnating our national economy and dramatically increasing our national debt. That’s not even to mention the far more devastating human toll these wars have taken.

As U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., recently said, “I think a realistic, responsible answer has to be focused on becoming less vulnerable to oil price changes over the medium- and long-term. And we become less vulnerable by using less oil” (emphasis added).

Despite our complaints, the U.S. already has it relatively easy at the pump. Most European countries averages more than $8/gallon and even the world’s fastest growing economies in India and China pay more than $4/gallon. What many of these countries have which we lack is an integrated and comprehensive public transportation network. High gasoline prices and abundant transportation options drive consumer behavior in a particular direction that not only gives people more flexibility, but reduces carbon emissions and thus actively improves public health.

My Climate Ride buddy Ben Jervey over at Good points out, “An odd trend seems to be that the (sic) most of countries that have gas prices under our own, are those same countries that so many politicians routinely cite as ‘evil’ or ‘undemocratic.'” Two countries with some of the cheapest gas prices in the world: Iraq and Iran.

Even the environmental effects of oil consumption and production have large-scale, tangible economic impacts. Our struggling economy could probably find better ways to spend the estimated $20 billion it has cost to clean up the Gulf oil spill. States are now cutting funding to primary education while spending over $600 million annually to clean up routine underground oil leakages at storage sites. There’s also this thing called climate change that some people are worried about.

If higher gasoline prices — more truthfully accounting for the environmental and social costs of gasoline in the first place — force us to drive less and rely on more creative and healthy ways to power our economy, then bring it on, OPEC!

It’s in our long-term interests to have cleaner air, a more peaceful globe and a more diverse and stable economy, and our reliance on oil actively undermines all of those goals. As volatile as gas prices are in the short-term, now dwindling global oil reserves mean gas prices ultimately have only one direction to go: up. But if handled wisely, there’s a fair chance our collective well-being might just go up with them.

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