May 25, 2008
Environmentalists fond of higher gas prices
Julie Moran Alterio
The Journal News
There’s no shortage of grumpy faces at the gas pumps these days as prices top $4 a gallon. But amid those frowns are smiles from some people who couldn’t be happier about the rising price of gas.
Count Charlie Cutietta-Olson among them. A research scientist with a public utility, Cutietta-Olson bicycles 3 miles each way to his job in Valhalla.
If he has to ride farther or be somewhere at night, he takes a motorcycle, which despite the spike in prices, he fills for $12. “Gas can get up to $8 or $10 a gallon, and it’s not going to have an impact on my pocket,” he said.
While Cutietta-Olson said he feels bad for colleagues who drive all the way from Dutchess County, he also thinks it’s about time gas prices went up.
“It’s been frustrating gas has been cheap for so long,” said Cutietta-Olson, who is 47. “I remember talking about this in sixth grade back in the ’70s. The first time I visited Europe was in ’74 and gas was already $5 a gallon there. This has always been in the cards. It’s not a gloating thing, but the longer we put it off, the worse it’s going to be.”
Oil isn’t a bottomless resource, Cutietta-Olson and other fans of higher prices point out, saying we might as well figure out how we’re going to live without it sooner rather than later.
Whether they are environmentalists, public transportation advocates, average folks or economists – including Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economist and onetime economic adviser to President Bush – fans of pricier petroleum believe there are good things to come as filling the tank becomes prohibitive and cars stay parked in the garage more often.
Less driving means less pollution, less traffic and fewer accidents, the argument goes. Car companies could be spurred to greater innovation in fuel efficiency. Government might invest more in mass transit. Consumers might be more willing to buy a hybrid or compact car rather than simply driving a gas-guzzling SUV by default.
Some – like Jennie Sunshine, a stay-at-home mom from Yorktown – even hope rising gas prices will mean society becomes more neighborly.
“While high gas prices are scary, and are pushing the American people to the limit, I also think it’s a good thing,” she said. “It will force some folks to embrace public transportation, car pool, consolidate errands and only drive when necessary, which are all much better for our environment. It will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles overall, reduce the congestion on the roads and get people to stay home and do things in their own neighborhoods. Maybe having neighbors over for a barbecue would suddenly become the thing to do again, instead of going out to dinner just as a family.”
Sunshine said she’s glad that her husband is able to commute via rail to his job in New York City as an accountant. She hopes to see more regions of the United States follow the lead of Japan and Europe and invest in public transportation.
“They have a great appreciation for gas and the cost of it, we have been pampered in this country for way too long, I think. It’s time we buckle down and focus on what’s important, and I think these higher gas prices are going to help us do that,” she said. “I know that if we are forced as a nation to find solutions, we will because we are innovative and smart people.”
Sunshine said she does her part by doing all her errands at once. The Environmental Defense Fund said cutting a 20-mile trip out of your schedule each week can cut the pollution that causes global warming by 1,200 pounds in a year and save $100 in gas.
Jerry Robock of Yorktown, who hasn’t been to a gas station since he started making his own diesel fuel from used French fry grease about four years ago, said he is thrilled with higher gas prices.
“I personally think the price of gas should be doubled,” he said.
Like other advocates of higher prices, Robock isn’t eager for the increase to go to oil companies, which he believes get too many tax breaks for exploration and sweet deals on mineral rights.
He’d like to see higher gas taxes to fund alternative fuel research and mass transit, like in Europe. The International Energy Agency reports that Germans pay $5.16 a gallon in taxes and the French pay $4.83. In the United States, gas taxes average 40 cents.
Robock’s job in the energy distribution business involves programming computers to manage the flow of oil. A 25-year veteran of the energy field, Robock said the reason he thinks prices must go even higher is that the kind of consumers who spend $5 at Starbucks aren’t likely to be motivated by the spike we’ve seen so far.
“Everybody kept forecasting that when it hit $3, people were going to stop driving so much and would buy more energy efficient cars. Then they said $4, now they’re saying $5. The reality is that in this country that we are wealthy enough on average, we have enough disposable income, that the price of gas is not a big cost,” he argues. “There are certainly a lot of lower and middle class people where it’s critical, where it’s a question of eating or driving to work, and I don’t want to diminish that at all. But for the majority of people, it’s not that significant.”
Iona College professor Fredrica Rudell said she paid more than $60 to fill up her Volkswagen Beetle last week at the Bronxville gas station near her Yonkers home. The price per gallon was $4.52 – high, but she’s willing to pay more.
“On the radio they say it’s heading toward $5, that’s the next barrier that needs to be broken, and for me that’s fine,” she said. “It’s just getting closer to what I would call the truer cost of gasoline, when you factor in pollution, and the cost of maintaining highways and roads, and wars for oil, the biggest expense of all.”
Rudell remembers living through the oil shortage of the ’70s and hearing President Carter encouraging people to put on sweaters, turn down the thermostat and save fuel.
“We were asked to make a sacrifice. These days, nobody expects to sacrifice,” she said. “I hope this is a wakeup call. I hope it will make us think about our consumption and our lifestyles and make us think about our responsibilities to each other and to the planet, as well as helping moving business along to producing cars that are more fuel efficient and get us off the oil addiction completely.”
Deann Cartwright of Hastings, an environmental advocate with Sustainable Hastings, said she’s already heard a shift in the conversations at the local park where she gather with other moms.
In between pushing her two children on the swings, Cartwright and other parents are now arranging car pools to Trader Joe’s, a change she sees as just the beginning.
Cartwright hopes awareness over gas prices will spiral into other environmental actions, like buying local produce, hanging clothes on the line instead of tossing them in the dryer and installing low-flow showerheads.
“Personally, I am tickled pink. But I am really tickled green because it’s really making people wake up,” she said.
Emmett Pepper, the Hudson Valley/Connecticut Program Director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said environmentalists are sympathetic to working people hit by gas prices, but also hope it will lead to changes they have been advocating for years, like using mass transportation. A resident of Bridgeport, Conn., Pepper commutes by train and bus to his office in White Plains.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said Metro-North ridership is up 5.6 percent in the first three months for this year to 19.7 million people.
“It is never a good thing for working class families to be pinched in their wallets,” he said. “It is also a shame that many of us waited to rethink how much gas we waste until after we started getting hit financially.”