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COURSEY: The price of driving in California

Published: Monday, October 8, 2012 at 12:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 8, 2012 at 12:55 p.m.

Californians have such short memories, which should come as no surprise. We're human, after all.

So it helps to have reminders. Such as this: Remember when Santa Rosa gasoline prices spiked to $4.55 a gallon in June 2008? Sales of smaller, fuel-efficient cars skyrocketed. Owners of gas-guzzling SUVs couldn't unload their land yachts fast enough. Driving habits changed, and people found ways to conserve fuel.

That was only four years ago. But since then, we've crept back into our F150s and RX350s and hopped up Mustangs and even over-sized Mini Coopers.

And now we're shocked – shocked! – that gas prices have spiked again, this time to an average of $4.64 a gallon Sunday in Santa Rosa.

I don't want to make light of this, because a price jump of this magnitude really does hurt the people who can least afford it. Some are paying $20 more to fill their tank this week than it cost them a month ago.

But when will we learn? We Americans – and Californians in particular – have chosen an expensive lifestyle. The true costs of that lifestyle have been hidden behind relatively cheap gas for a long time, but they have to be paid eventually, and the current price spike is part of that.

Most directly, we are paying for our decision to make California its own market for gasoline. Strict emissions rules and blending requirements (which Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the Air Resources Board to suspend this week) make California gasoline unique. Because the gas we burn comes from California refineries and is meant for California cars, we are susceptible to interruptions in supplies such as the refinery and pipeline problems blamed for the current spike in prices.

But, let's remember that the rules regulating California gasoline are there for a reason. Remember the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s, when the air over Los Angeles could be cut with a knife? Rules for cleaner gas and cleaner engines have made a difference in the air we breathe, but those improvements have come with a cost. Remember MTBE, the additive that made gasoline burn more efficiently but also found its way into our water supplies? Banning that chemical in gasoline helped reduce a serious environmental threat, but it made California a more expensive place to drive.

Still, our gasoline is relatively cheap compared to other parts of the world. In Europe recently, gasoline was selling for 1.70 Euros per liter – about $8.30 per gallon. And people there adjust accordingly. Scooters and bicycles pack European streets, and you rarely see a pickup or an SUV.

Here, we like the comfort and the quiet and the heft of bigger vehicles. We like to be able to drive to work alone, or haul the kids to school rather than send them out alone on the mean streets of Sonoma County. We like to drive. But we hate the cost of fuel.

But, once again, that cost is artificially low. We haven't increased the gasoline tax in California since 1990. Yes, the state's gas taxes already are among the highest in the nation. But in the past 22 years we have dramatically increased the number of miles driven in California while at the same time making cars more fuel-efficient, meaning the gas tax is spread ever more thinly over our crumbling highway infrastructure. So we complain about our roads as we complain about the price of gas.

At some point, we have to pay for all of this. We can do it by expanding the availability and use of public transportation. We can do it by turning to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. We can do it by reducing sprawl and ensuring that people can live closer to where they work. We can do it by changing our lifestyles and using our feet and our pedals occasionally instead of routinely relying on our cars.

Or we can pay the price at the pump.

We'll learn this some day, won't we?

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.

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