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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

The downside to high oil prices

As you've probably gathered, I think rising oil prices are a good thing. Since loud idiots on the radio and their pocketbooks are the only things that many Americans pay attention to, I see rising oil prices as about the only way that America will get the necessary message that the party is over. They need to drive smaller vehicles, drive them less, turn out the lights, support mass transit, eat less meat, and a variety of other things if America and the world are going to survive the 21st century. The distortions in our economy caused by cheap oil are enormous and enormously dangerous, and need to be removed as quickly as possible. In addition, there are some short-term advantages to rising oil prices. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez was able to fight off a determined US-backed opposition trying to remove him from office, in part because rising oil prices helped his country avoid economic catastrophe. While certainly no saint, I think Chavez's survival was a definite plus for the people of Venezuela and of the western hemisphere in general, as a foil to US corporate hegemony if nothing else. High prices may also contribute to our idiot president being dethroned.

But there are certainly some down sides to higher oil prices. When I argue that higher prices are a good thing, many progressives argue that they hit poor people the hardest, since they are least able to pay the higher prices. I think this is questionable even in the short term, and especially in the long term, because the poor are much more dependent on buses and other mass transit than the rich, and higher oil prices should increase demand for mass transit. That should result in more buses on more routes at more times, giving people who don't have cars greater mobility. If the price gets high enough, it might even reverse the plague of sprawl which has pulled wealthier Americans farther and farther away from the cities. If some move back into the cities the tax bases will recover, along with schools, roads, and jobs. I don't mean to be callous; I realize that many poor people are driving 20-year-old low-mileage beaters to work every day and don't currently have a viable alternative, and that there are many people on fixed incomes who will have a hard time making it through the winter as heating oil and natural gas prices rise. Higher prices will hurt some poor people, but they are currently being hurt in other ways, some of them tied to low oil prices. In the end, we're all on the same planet, and stopping the use of fossil fuels ASAP is key to the survival of all of us. Obviously, it's not my call, but it's a shame that our political system has pretty much kept everyone who should be concerned out of the debate while the politicians are doing favors for their friends.

One other obvious and unavoidable drawback to higher prices is that it will spur demands for more exploration in the few remaining wilderness areas in the world. We've seen that for years in the calls for drilling in the ANWR. And, via Michael, I learn that politicians in British Columbia are caving in to oil interests and lifting a ban on oil and gas drilling off B.C.'s north coast.

Here's a photo of the Queen Charlotte Basin, one of the areas threatened:

And here is a photo of residents of the area protesting drilling:

"Oil is a black market." Good line!