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Commentary: Raising the gas tax could help in many ways

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 28, 2010 - The 40th anniversary of Earth Day was a fitting time to reflect on many notable achievements of the environmental movement in the United States. These include great progress fostering cleaner water, cleaner air, the cleanup of highly contaminated sites and the recovery of many species such as the Bald Eagle. All Americans benefit from these enormous accomplishments.

In other areas viewed as equally urgent by the pioneering activists, progress has been minimal; and consequently, a high price has been paid by our citizens. Of these, our continued reliance on fossil fuels remains paramount.

Compare the petroleum situation in 1970 with that of today. In 1970, times were good. The U.S. was the leading oil producing country in the world, a position it had held for a century. Gasoline was cheap, about 32 cents a gallon, amounting to about $1.80 in today's dollars. Moreover, this 32 cents included full service, which provided thousands of jobs, and more than a third of that price represented federal and state taxes. Nevertheless, there was plenty of cause for alarm regarding our future petroleum prospects.

Nearly 15 years earlier, geophysicist M.K. Hubbert had predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in 1970. He was proved correct. Hubbert and other pioneers recognized the impossibility of sustaining exponential increases in the production of petroleum and other finite resources to satisfy increases in population growth.

Additional problems were foreseen with the environmental pollution associated with all aspects of fossil fuel use, ranging from production, transportation, refining and combustion. Only a year earlier, the blowout of an oil rig in the Santa Barbara Channel had fouled beautiful California beaches and decimated wildlife. Huge tanker spills had become common. Every gallon of gasoline was laced with several grams of an additive, tetraethyl lead, that contaminated Earth with a toxic, mind-numbing metal. Large, inefficient automobile engines produced acid rain, smog, particulates and carbon dioxide.

So, what was done to counter this multifaceted national threat?

Not much, although, thanks to the tireless efforts of C.C. Patterson, the geochemist who was the first to determine the age of the Earth, the use of tetraethyl lead was eventually discontinued.

Except for that change and emissions controls, progress has been slow. The federal tax on gas remained flat, even during and for years after the oil embargo of 1973, when prices spiked and huge lines formed at service stations. Clearly, Congress saw no pressing need to discourage consumption or to reduce the growing dependence of the United States on petroleum.

Instead, anemic legislation was passed to increase the fuel efficiency of automobiles, which at first did some good. Nevertheless, the fuel efficiency of the average American car has not significantly increased since 1985, thanks to SUVs and the craving for speed and power. And now we produce less than a third of the crude oil we consume.

So, where are we today?

While our balance of payments is compromised, we fear and combat the same terrorists and despotic nations whose capabilities have been bolstered by our petrodollars. Fossil fuel combustion has acidified our oceans and produced deleterious climate effects. Our automobile industry, which for too long focused on the manufacture of large inefficient cars, is struggling, and will probably never again enjoy the premier position it once held.

Nowhere short of Detroit have the consequences been more painfully felt than in St. Louis, with its shuttered automobile plants. Yet only four states have a lower gasoline tax than Missouri, and Congress continues to dither about raising the federal gasoline tax, which in real dollars is less than it was in 1970. Meanwhile we lack sufficient revenue for our schools, hospitals and agencies, and a huge oil slick from another blowout threatens offshore Louisiana.

We could solve many problems by increasing the gasoline tax in Missouri.

Bob Criss is a professor in the department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University.