Saturday, June 26, 2010

Time for a Carbon Tax?

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts about recovering from the Gulf oil spill and from oil dependency overall. The first introduces the series.

Does the Gulf spill mean it’s time for a carbon tax? I bring this issue up after reading Jason Henderson’s essay on Streetsblog San Francisco, “The Moral Imperative of the BP Oil Spill: Drive 20 Percent Less.” Henderson, a Louisiana native who now teaches at San Francisco State University, argues first that a moratorium on offshore oil drilling in the Gulf is imperative, and second, that we need to cut driving by 20 percent to offset the oil otherwise produced by idled Gulf rigs.

To support this reduction in driving, Henderson calls for a World-War-II-scale effort to encourage personal driving responsibility, increase federal transit funding, improve bicycle facilities, and encourage entrepreneurial jitney services to fill travel niches poorly served by bikes or transit -- all fine ideas.

One reader who commented on Henderson’s essay suggested that a carbon tax be part of the package, and I agree. Such a tax would be an appropriate way to fund the changes Henderson suggests. I’ve long supported some sort of carbon or increased fuel tax, and would like to see such a tax be phased in with increases over time.

Why do we need this? Because it will likely take far more than BP’s $20 billion to really make things right again in the Gulf. And because even though BP might have been criminally negligent, they’re out there drilling in the first place because there’s so much demand for oil. It’s appropriate, then, that we all contribute to Gulf recovery with some sort of tax on the oil that’s causing the problem. And it’s also appropriate for that tax to be used to change the conditions that led to the problem in the first place. In other words, that it be used to help get us all off oil.

A carbon tax could be used to improve transit and bicycle facilities and help cut driving by 20%

In addition to funding transit, bicycle facilities and perhaps incentives for the private-sector jitney services which Henderson recommends, revenues from a carbon tax could also:
  1. Support job training to help oil workers from the Gulf, as well as workers from other hard-hit areas such as Detroit, shift into cleaner, greener jobs.
  2. Support incentives for renewable energy development including biofuels, solar and wind.
  3. Expand programs that reduce oil and auto dependence such as Safe Routes to Schools and others.
Of course, a carbon tax would also reduce demand for gasoline, encouraging people to drive less and more efficiently; encourage energy conservation overall, further reducing the demand for petroleum and fossil fuels; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, something else we need to do if we hope to have a human-friendly atmosphere much past the 21st century.

The idea of any sort of new tax affecting gasoline – be it a carbon tax, a BTU tax, or whatever – is politically charged and a tough sell. One hopes, however, that this might change if we fully acknowledge the moral imperative of helping the hard-hit Gulf region both recover and transition away from oil, and if we understand that doing so will help us all.

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