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Monday, September 27, 2010

Would Gas Have to Cost $9 a Gallon to Meet Emission Goals?

Posted By on Mon, Sep 27, 2010 at 11:35 AM

click to enlarge Fill 'er up -- for $135!
  • Fill 'er up -- for $135!
Those of us not named Rush Limbaugh know that in order to prevent the world from devolving into a giant Mad Max set, we've got to drive less.

So as California's politicians and environmental regulators set ambitious emission reduction targets to combat global warming, the question is: Will people actually get out of their cars? And can we sweet-talk them out from behind the wheel through more enlightened land-use planning that discourages sprawl -- or will it be necessary to jack up the cost of driving through hefty taxes and fees?

The carrot or the stick-shift?

As you might suspect, politicians favor the land-use option, which stresses getting people to live closer to their jobs and public transit, because it sounds relatively painless. And while enlightened minds agree that discouraging sprawl is an effective environmental strategy, it's hard to buy the idea that "smart growth" alone will solve our problems. At some point, elected officials will have to get people out of their cars and out of the suburbs by making it less cost-effective to drive to work.

But nobody is really making a big deal out of so-called pricing strategies because it's hard to get elected on a platform of "Vote for me and I'll triple the cost of your car commute." Best to keep your environmentalism vague. 

Two years ago, the governor signed SB 375, a bill that aimed to discourage driving by -- you guessed it -- curbing sprawl. The bill also directed the California Air Resources Board to establish emission-reduction goals for different regions in the state. And therein lies a debate over whether greenhouse gases can be reduced to acceptable levels through better planning alone. (Side note: SB 375 will not be affected by Prop. 23, the oil-industry financed initiative that would essentially kill the state's more famous anti-global warming law.)
Last week, the Air Resources Board voted to set the Bay Area's emission-reduction targets to  7 percent in 2020, and 15 percent in 2035.

Predictably, developers, business groups, and Republicans opposed the move, saying what developers, business groups, and Republicans always say about environmental measures: It'll kill jobs! But their critique, while reactionary, pointed out what we all intuitively suspect and what liberal pols are too scared to say: We can't meet the lowered emission goals without penalizing driving.

Opponents of the emission reductions pointed to projections undertaken by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the regional-planning body that worked with the air board on developing the goals. The MTC forecast said, among other things, the price of gas would have to be tripled to $9 a gallon and commuters would have to be charged a 25-cent-per-mile fee to use freeways during rush hour.

But Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager, who sits on MTC's board, says the $9-gallon-of-gas figure cited by opponents was done earlier in the planning process. More recent projections, he said, showed that the Bay Area could easily achieve 10 percent reductions through better land-use policies.

As for the remaining 5 percent, Yeager acknowledged hitting that target would be trickier. But he said there were ways of doing it without imposing the fees and taxes (he mentioned  telecommuting, for instance).

But not everyone is so optimistic. Bill Dodd, a Napa County supervisor who also sits on the MTC board, says the 15 percent reduction goal is unrealistic and is the product of "irrational exuberance on the part of elected officials throughout the Bay Area." Dodd noted that MTC staff had previously expressed doubt whether 15 percent reductions were achievable.

Dodd, who recently co-wrote an op-ed in the Mercury News about the emissions targets, said one thing that would definitely help curtail pollution: unemployment. "We know if we have a terrible economy we can hit our greenhouse-gas emissions. Hurray."

Of course, it's all crystal ball analysis at this point. We won't know exactly what it'll take to meet the lowered pollution targets until some of the strategies, like transit-oriented development, are actually tested to see how they work in the real world.

But it's a safe bet that getting people to ditch their cars won't be easy. A Dec. 2008 analysis by the MTC said that even if we triple the cost of car-commuting, promote better planning, and invest billions in high-speed rail and ferry service, we would only lower the average vehicle miles traveled per capita in the Bay Area by about 5 percent by 2035  -- well below the region's 10 percent goal. 

The point? Even the best planning and fees discouraging driving might not be enough. Let's just hope that in the near future Tesla or someone else makes a battery-powered car people can actually afford.

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