High gas prices are good

Bear with me here…at least I’m not proposing something patently ridiculous like self-serve gas stations!

It’s true that rising energy prices pose serious financial hardships, particularly for those with little to no disposable income, and politicians should take action — possibly through targeted tax cuts for those hurting the worst — to ease the burden while the economy adjusts to a new reality. But there is a silver lining to the energy crisis, and most politicians are unfortunately trying to run away from it.

Bucking a decades-long trend, Americans are actually driving less than they did last year, while public transit ridership is surging. Despite Al Gore‘s best efforts, a heightened public awareness of the effects of climate change couldn’t accomplish what basic market forces could.

Yet instead of embracing this market-induced weening off of oil, even New Jersey’s supposedly progressive politicians have been too eager to enable the addiction by trying to offer us just one more cheap hit in this era of expensive oil. U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews embraced the ultimate political gimmick: a federal gas tax holiday. U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone wants the administration to tap the strategic oil reserve. And U.S. Rep. Scott Garrett and U.S. Senate candidate Dick Zimmer both supported drilling for oil off the coast, though Zimmer reversed course once he realized how politically unpopular the position was. (Update: see correction below)

Is it any surprise that the same people who encouraged us to buy Hummers and Cadillac Escalades with up to $25,000 in tax write-offs are now the ones complaining about how expensive it is to fill up a tank of gas? It’s the same people who at election time like to perpetuate the fantasy that we can continue to feed those gas-guzzling beasts with cheap gas.

This crisis presents a unique opportunity for elected officials to take bold action and retool our economy, energy and transportation infrastructure to work efficiently in an era of expensive oil. It could take a decade or more and it wouldn’t come cheap, but the solutions aren’t novel: conservation and energy efficiency, a major expansion of mass transit, smart growth and mixed use communities, zoning that discourages sprawl and investments in clean, renewable energy would be a good start.

Politicians have a choice, but will they dig us out of this hole or just keep digging?

CORRECTION: Dick Zimmer has not changed his position. He still supports drilling off the coast, but not near New Jersey. He told Herb Jackson in a recent interview that “If the citizens of Florida want to have drilling along their coast, that’s OK with me. I oppose drilling off the New Jersey shore and anywhere close to New Jersey that might endanger the New Jersey Shore.”

High gas prices are good