The Real Price of Gasoline

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I’m on a deadline today for the magazine (that thing that shows up sometimes at your house), so blogging is going to brief. But wanted to link to a neat video from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) on the true price of gas. CIR tallies up the environmental, climate, health and security costs of a single gallon of gasoline, from the oil fields of Saudi Arabia to your tank. It’s not just the smog or carbon dioxide emissions created when you drive and burn that gas—gasoline can release pollution at the station, as soon as you lift the pump. Getting that oil from Saudi Arabia to a refiner requires a massive container ship, and that refined gas needs to be trucked from the refinery to your station. Check it out:


I’m posting that video a day after a thought-provoking New York Times story about the extreme efforts some European cities have taken to discourage driving—in short, by making it utterly miserable:

Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.

(Video from TIME: Turning Old Gas Guzzlers into Electric Vehicles)

Those policies include much higher prices for gasoline in Europe—a gallon of unleaded currently costs nearly $9 in Germany—prices that are closer to the true cost of fuel. Can Americans learn something from that example? Maybe, though I suspect that any American mayor who tried to do to their streets what city planners are doing in Zurich or Barcelona would be run out of town on a…well, highway, probably, not rail. In Manhattan—by far the densest city in America—not even the great and all-powerful Michael Bloomberg could get a congestion pricing plan implemented, which would have charged drivers for using the city’s most-crowded streets. (Similar plans have successfully reduced traffic in cities like London and Singapore.) Bloomberg’s spunky transportation chief Janette Sadik-Kahn has been heavily criticized by some New Yorkers—and celebrated by others—over her efforts to close some streets to auto traffic, including parts of Time Square, and greatly expand bike lanes. (Read Matthew Shaer’s great New York story on the city’s bike wars.) The political reality is that private cars remain a vital way for many New Yorkers to get around—especially in the more populated and generally less well-off outer boroughs—and anti-auto policies are going to remain a hard sell.

(More from TIME: Top 20 Green Tech Ideas.)

And this may be one of those situations where if you can’t make it in New York, you can’t make it anywhere. Aside from reliably green outliers like Portland (where the dream of the 1990s is still alive) and maybe San Francisco, cars are the lifeblood of U.S. cities. As CIR’s video makes clear, however, cars have taken over in part because we’ve never had to pay the full price of driving them—even now. The question, in the age of increasingly tight oil supplies, is how we can ease our way off that addiction without causing an economic or political heart attack. The White House’s possible plan to raise corporate fuel efficiency requirements to 56.2 mpg could be one way. If we’re not going to pay the true price of gas, at least we should use it more efficiently.

(Moneyland: Top 10 Diesel Cars.)