Running on fumes

Posted: May 27, 2004 12:00 AM

 It must be an election year. Ten years ago, when he wasn't running for president, Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., mused about the value of raising the tax on gasoline by 50 cents a gallon (in 1994 dollars). Now, Kerry has hit the road to campaign for cheaper gas prices and to accuse President Bush of not lifting a finger to lower prices at the pump.
The Sierra Club, which endorsed Kerry for president, is on board with the idea of cheaper gas prices, too. What gives? I asked Sierra Club spokesman Dan Becker (who drives a hybrid car): Don't you guys still lust after high-priced fuel?

 I say this because the environmentalists have long advocated steep levies on gasoline to discourage driving. In 1998, energy officials in the Clinton administration figured that meeting the greenhouse-gas-reduction goals in their beloved Kyoto global warming treaty would require a 50 percent spike in gas prices.

 As American Enterprise Institute fellow Steve Hayward put it, "If you hook an environmentalist to a lie detector, he'll tell you our gasoline is too cheap and that we ought to have European-style taxes. But whenever the marketplace raises the price, they scream bloody murder."

 Judging by Becker's answer, however, it seems that those days are gone. Sure, Becker said, he would like to see higher gas taxes, but it will never happen. "We'd be happy to meet with all the other advocates for a higher gas tax in a phone booth somewhere," he said.

 Besides, he added, "We've seen 50 percent increases in gas prices over the past few years with no improvement in mass-transit ridership, increased carpooling or a reduction in driving distances. I don't think there's price elasticity" in gasoline.

 I've thought as much for years. People commute in cars not only because gasoline is still cheap -- as The New York Times reported, in 1981, gasoline cost almost $3 per gallon in current dollars -- but because cars generally are more convenient than mass transit. And time is money. It is a good day when enviros finally recognize that social engineering schemes to get people out of their cars won't work.

 Becker argued: If you can't change people, you can change cars. He approves of Kerry's support for new rules that would require carmakers to boost sedan fuel efficiency to 36 miles per gallon by 2015. Today's mandate: 27.5 mpg.

 I like the idea, too. It's incremental and would allow Detroit to reduce auto pollution as technologies improve. It doesn't try to force consumers to make choices they won't make. It will boost the price of cars, but it also will result in cleaner air.

 Bush and the GOP should sign on, but they won't. They're not going to do anything to endanger the Big Three's bottom line.

 But here's what I don't like about Kerry's cheap-gas joy ride:

 Last week, The New York Times rightly editorialized against Democrats who were calling on Bush to dump the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a gimmick to lower gas prices. Selling off the reserve wouldn't dent prices significantly, and it defeats the purpose of the reserve. The editorial noted that "some reservoir of shame" had kept Kerry off the dump-the-oil chorus. By this week, that reservoir was empty. Kerry took the low road, calling for the sale of the reserves, even when he must know it is the wrong thing to do.

 Kerry also has pledged to budget $10 billion over 10 years to help Detroit manufacture more fuel-efficient cars. Becker says he can accept such a plan, if a Kerry White House requires recipients to produce cars with better gas mileage.

 But there's no need for Kerry's corporate welfare, just as there is no need for Bush to grease Detroit with funds for the fabled Freedom Car (as I wrote when the program was unveiled). President Clinton had a similar program, and what were the results? Honda and Toyota introduced breakthrough hybrid-electric cars -- without U.S. taxpayer dollars.

 Kerry said he cares about energy independence, but he opposes drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.

 Worst of all: According to the Boston Herald, la famille Kerry owns eight cars (six of them SUVs), a motorcycle, two powerboats and a Gulfstream II jet. Kerry nonetheless told reporters last month that he doesn't own an SUV. ("The family has it; I don't have it.")

 Kerry says he can sell himself better on energy issues to European leaders. But how can he preach conservation anywhere from the helm of such a fleet?

 In a sense, Kerry's plan is the perfect California energy plan: It tells voters they can bash Bush for not doing enough to stop global warming and still drive their SUVs. Californians can demand cheap gas but oppose new oil drilling. Just as long as you say you really, really care about the environment.