By Donella Meadows
–February 18, 1993—-
There is much talk of sacrifice these days, and much media drama about whether the American people will actually accept such a terrible hardship as an energy tax. The fuss is exaggerated. The energy tax is predictable, sensible, and long overdue. The people asked for it. And it is not a sacrifice.
In the last election the voters who supported Perot and Clinton already took a stand for an energy tax. Perot promised a 50-cent-per gallon gas tax, and while the media were recoiling in horror at such an un-American idea, people were flocking to him. Clinton was not so explicit, but everyone who knew anything about him or Al Gore expected a gas tax from him. He has wisely expanded it to all forms of energy, to give the energy market a more level playing field.
The Clinton tax will probably amount to just about exactly Perot’s proposal, 50 cents on a gallon of gasoline — only a fraction of what our competitors pay in Europe and Japan. A smart consumer can easily avoid even this small bite, while helping to bring the national deficit down.
How? Easy! Say you’re an average driver with an average car. You go about 10,000 miles a year and get about 20 miles a gallon. You use 500 gallons of gas a year. Say you pay $1.10 a gallon now, 10 cents of which is federal tax. (If these numbers are off for your situation, it’s easy to redo the calculation for yourself.)
Your gas bill is $550 a year, $50 of which goes to Uncle Sam.
Now suppose the new tax adds 50 cents a gallon. If you keep the 20 mpg car, your annual bill goes up to $800, $300 of which goes to the government. Good for the deficit, bad for you. Sacrifice.
So turn in the guzzler on a new or used car that gets 40 mpg. Of the 597 car models available for sale in the U.S. in 1992, exactly 27 got ratings of at least 40 mpg for highway driving (11 of them made domestically, 16 imported). Here are some of the choices: Ford Festiva and Escort Pony, Chevrolet Geo Metro, Pontiac LeMans, Honda Civic, Suzuki Swift, Volkswagen Jetta. These also happen to be some of the least expensive cars.
At 40 mpg and 10,000 miles you will use just 250 gallons of gas a year. Given the tax, you will pay $400 — that’s $150 less than you’ve been paying! Of the $400 the government gets $150 — $100 more than it has been getting!
This is a win/win/win/win/win solution. The winners are: 1). your pocketbook, 2). your children who won’t have to pay back such a huge national debt, 3). the companies smart enough to make efficient cars, 4). the environment, which will be loaded with half as much air pollution from every mile you drive, and 5). the U.S. balance of payments. If we all switched to 40 mpg vehicles, we would not have to import any oil from anywhere.
A hefty gas tax, especially one that is guaranteed to rise over time, will also set off a revolution in car design. It will give us many more choices than 27 models that get only 40 mpg. Nearly every car company already has a 60-100 mpg prototype circling around its test track. A higher gas price will encourage serious development of the 150 mpg possibilities engineers are talking about, and ethanol- or hydrogen-fueled vehicles, and other possibilities that will lead to the transport systems of the 21st century.
But what about safety? Because of a relentless campaign from the car makers, most Americans believe that high-mileage cars mean unsafe cars. Here are some facts from the Center for Auto Safety. In 1975 the average new car got 14 mpg and the fatality rate from car accidents was 3.6 deaths per 100 million miles travelled. In 1988 the efficiency of the average new car had doubled, while the fatality rate had fallen by a third, to 2.4.
Rising fuel efficiency does not necessarily mean smaller cars. Smaller cars do not necessarily mean less safety. Hundreds of factors, from car design to road design to drunk-driving restrictions to speed limits to seat-belts are more important to driving safety than fuel efficiency. Since the car companies are resigned to the energy tax, presumably they will now stop telling us to be afraid of efficient cars.
Out of the multiple-win opportunities of an energy tax, there is one clear set of losers: the energy companies. They are already assembling lobbyists to hit the energy tax with everything they’ve got. Mobil has been running ads to explain why the national good would be served not by an energy tax, but by a general “consumption tax,” which means a sales tax not just on energy, but on everything.
A general sales tax would give people an incentive to consume less, which would hurt the economy. An energy tax would give people an incentive to waste less energy, which would help the economy, the environment, and national security.
The media ask in shocked tones, “Will the American people allow this tax?” There’s no reason why we shouldn’t. The tax benefits us and we have asked for it. The real question is whether the energy companies will allow this tax — and whether tax decisions in this country should be made by the energy companies or by the people.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993