Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rising Gas Prices, Part Two: What Aren't We Paying For?

This post is the second in a series on the soaring price of gasoline. I originally thought I could fit all of these ideas in one post -- boy was I wrong. If you missed out on Part One, read it here.

One of my favorite finds in the enviro-journalism world recently has been Climate Desk, a collaborative reporting effort from some of my already favorite news outlets like Grist, Mother Jones, and The Atlantic. They consistently cover the issues that I have on my radar, and do it very well. My investigation into the rising price of gasoline is no exception. I encourage you to click through their slideshow which covers the ins and outs of the issue, but I will share with you two of the highlights from it here.

The first is a video of Christopher Knittel, professor of energy economics at MIT, who speaks about the "true social cost of a gallon of gasoline."

He hits a lot of important points in a short clip, including how gas is linked on the global market to the price of oil, four types of externalities (a larger military, pollution and human health effects, climate change, and an economy susceptible to oil price shocks), how the price of gasoline affects our decision-making processes as consumers, and the fact that much of our modern way of life is predicated on cheap gasoline.

One of his most perspective-shifting comments is surely, "Even though the price of gas is historically high these days it turns out there's a lot of costs that society bears of our decisions to buy gasoline that aren't incorporated in the price." Maybe we've gotten away with a cheaper price than we really could have been paying all this time.

The second clip takes Knittel's ideas one step further, exploring the question: What contributes to the cost of a gallon of gasoline? In the process it explains what maybe should be included, but isn't. Take a look at this animation from Climate Desk partner, the Center for Investigative Reporting:

Nothing is more telling than this quote, "What's the true price of gas? It's a lot more than what we pay at the pump." I appreciate the way they quantify the total cost of externalities (somewhere between $550 billion and $1.7 trillion) and also the pollution impact of a gallon of gasoline, much of which accumulates before it even reaches the tank of your car.

These videos effectively capture the social and environmental costs not reflected in the price we pay, borne by others or even by us at a later date. Deferring risk and responsibility to separate communities or future generations in the name of near-term gain -- now where have I heard that before?

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