Thursday, January 15, 2009

GM Grasps Necessity of Higher Gas Taxes, But Obama Takes Them "Off the Table"

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For over a decade New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has been the prime mover of a U.S. energy policy that would increase gasoline taxes and keep them high, so that the price of gasoline would, in one brilliant stroke, (1) induce consumers to buy fuel-efficient small cars, (2) lower domestic consumption of gasoline, (3) increase U.S. leverage against oil-states that wish us harm, and (4) reduce greenhouse cases generated by vehicle tailpipes.

So Friedman must really be sputtering with incredulity at Tuesday's turn of events.

On the one hand, General Motors Corp. Vice Chairman Robert Lutz told Bloomberg News that lower fuel prices are discouraging U.S. sales of small cars and gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles. The Bloomberg report continued:

Gasoline prices “are completely messing it up,” Lutz said today in a Bloomberg interview, referring to demand for small vehicles. “Nobody wants them.”

His comments reflect the swing back to pickups, sport- utility vehicles and vans at the end of 2008. The light trucks accounted for about 52 percent of vehicles sold in the U.S. in each of last year’s final two months, as gasoline tumbled to $1.62 a gallon from its $4.11 peak on July 15. For the year, cars outsold light trucks for the first time since 2000.

“We can’t sell small cars right now,” Lutz said. “People are buying trucks again.”

Lutz then went on to advocate what until very recently would have been heresy in Detroit: Obama's national energy policy must include higher gasoline prices. Score one for Friedman.

But on the other hand we have The Washington Post report on testimony to Congress 1/13 by Steven Chu, Barack Obama's nominee for Secretary of Energy. Departing from otherwise insightful and balanced remarks, Chu's comments on gasoline taxes led the Post to write this:

Although Chu once called for sharply raising gasoline taxes to cut oil use, yesterday he echoed Obama's comments that given the troubled economy, higher gasoline taxes are for now "off the table." He nevertheless continued to defend the idea of higher taxes, noting that they could reduce demand for petroleum products and encourage people to buy fuel-efficient vehicles, ultimately pushing down crude oil prices.

Clearly Obama needs to reconsider. The troubled economy will only get more troubled if Americans return to driving gas-guzzlers, thereby driving the price of gasoline back upwards, increasing greenhouse gases and making us even more dependent on oil-rich dictators. The time is ripe for higher gasoline taxes that should have been the centerpiece of U.S. energy policy for 20 or 30 years. If we let the moment slip away, shame on us all.

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