Sunday, May 07, 2006

About Oil Prices: What He Said

John McCarron's editorial "How to escape the automotive life" in the Chicago Tribune is right on target. He starts by encouraging Americans to walk more and to consider walking and biking in suburban planning. Then he takes on misguided political "solutions:" Bill Frist's $100 rebates, Judy Baar Topinka's sales tax reduction, and President Bush's suspension of environmental regulations. I think a lot of people aren't aware of this:
We should, if anything, raise the state tax on gasoline. Illinois is about to leave mega-millions of federal transportation dollars on the table for lack of a 20 percent state "match." ... That means federally approved projects like the rebuilding of South Wacker Drive, the CTA's proposed Circle Line and Metra's circumferential Star Line are indefinitely sidetracked, just when they'll be needed the most. The way gas prices are rising, who'd notice another penny or two to improve our region's public transportation?
After explaining what government should not do, he returns to what individuals should do: buy more efficient vehicles, drive more smoothly (I've been trying to teach this to my wife for years!), keep tires inflated, and try not to blame the oil companies -- despite their record profits, they aren't the ones setting the price of oil (I'll admit that ExxonMobil is a fabulous scapegoat, but deep inside I know McCarron is mostly right). His last point is obvious, wise, and hard to imagine for many:

We should change the way we live. It sounds drastic--not driving anywhere, anytime on a whim; not air-conditioning our homes to 68 degrees and toasting them to 72.
Frankly, that doesn't give me much to work with -- I walk or take public transportation wherever I can, I only run the air-conditioning when it's so hot that 80 degrees inside feels cool, and in the winter our thermostat ranges from 65 when we're awake to 60 when we're asleep. There is plenty of room for improvement for others, though. Like my parents -- occasionally I make the mistake of wearing a long-sleeved shirt to their house in the winter, and within minutes of entering, I'm burning up. Mom argues that their energy bills aren't that high, but that doesn't mean they couldn't be lower (I shouldn't pick on them too much; at least they have some compact fluorescent light bulbs).

A lot of Americans seem to look down on energy conservation as something they should only do if they can't afford to pay. After all, consumption is the American way. But the truth is that conservation helps everybody. Maybe you can afford your gas bill, but if you use less and the price goes down, maybe your retired neighbors will be able to afford their gas bill, too.

By making a few basic changes this winter, I cut our electric bills by 35%. We now use about 250 kilowatt-hours per month, which costs $32 (just wait until we get rid of that 16-year-old refrigerator!). Even allowing for 1,000 kWh during four summer months, we're 25-40% below the U.S. annual average. I'm not saying this to brag (okay, maybe a little); I want people to realize how wasteful we are and how easy it is to minimize energy usage. One person can't make much of a difference, but what if every residential customer reduced electricity usage by 35%? What if every motorist drove a little more smoothly and a little less often?

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