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Cheap gas stalls green efforts

- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

Advocates of energy conservation and renewable fuels may be the only ones in America looking back nostalgically on the days of $4-a-gallon gasoline.

The political will to reform energy policy and the public's demand for alternative fuels and more efficient cars appear likely to fall off as rapidly as the price of a gallon of gas, posing a new dilemma for champions of green energy and conservation.

Environmental advocates, and a few conservative thinkers, have begun talking about the need for a variable gasoline tax akin to the price floors used by some European nations to establish a consistent gas price, even as the cost of crude oil fluctuates.

But the relatively cheap price of gas - the national average was $1.88 Tuesday, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic - has undercut public support.

"What happens is there's no long-term response," said Daniel Sperling, a professor of civil engineering and environmental science and policy at the University of California at Davis, who is pushing a plan to create a price floor. "We almost overcame that mind-set."

The price-floor idea, like other explicit gasoline tax proposals, has received little favor in Congress, where members are ever-wary of new taxes.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, shot down the idea of any new gasoline tax last week.

"I don't think something like that has much prospect of being enacted," Mr. Bingaman told a group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The federal gasoline tax is 18.4 cents for every gallon of fuel, and states typically add their own gasoline tax that averages about 22 cents per gallon.

The gasoline tax has not been a political winner in Washington, historically.

President Carter's efforts to pass a 50-cent gasoline tax during the energy crisis of the late 1970s were received with laughter.

"The outrage and the laughter that just filled the country - not just this town - sank that," broadcaster Sam Donaldson said at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event last week.

Democratic lawmakers instead have looked to reduce tax credits for oil companies and tack on a windfall profits tax.

Renewable energy advocates have mixed opinions on what the sinking price at the pump will do for their chances.

Last week, President-elect Barack Obama said his job pitching energy reform to the public became more difficult after the national average cost of gasoline hit $2.07 a gallon - roughly half the national average motorists paid last summer.

"It may be a little harder, politically, but it's more important," Mr. Obama said in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" that aired Nov. 16. "Oil prices go up, gas prices at the pump go up, everybody goes into a flurry of activity. And then the prices go back down and, suddenly, we act like it's not important, and we start, you know, filling up our SUVs again. And, as a consequence, we never make any progress."

But former Vice President Al Gore, the most visible face of the environmental movement, said Americans learned their lesson this summer, regardless of the subsequent price dive.

"I don't think we're going to fall for it this time," Mr. Gore said in a recent interview with CNN.

Industry analysts say new gasoline taxes are never popular, regardless of the political climate or the rationale.

"A tax is a tax is a tax, no matter how you try to hide it," said Frank Maisano, an energy specialist who works with oil refiners. "Obviously, Senator Bingaman understands that."