We’re one-tenth of a penny short of $3-a-gallon gas today here in Michigan. Energy analysts predict that the price will approach or exceed $4 by mid-summer. Welcome to the new world of gas price politics and the emerging new culture of energy efficiency in America. It’s a whole lot easier to make the case for land and energy-conserving development patterns, energy efficiency, and a new economic development strategy in the United States when consumers’ ire is stoked by the price at the pumps. There are two things that really get America exercised: the price of gas and who was shown the door at American Idol.
Last night Democratic candidates for president convened in South Carolina to talk about guns, abortion, and the Iraq war. They didn’t talk about home prices that are flat or declining in most American suburbs, the enormous and widening income gap between the super, super, super rich and everybody else, the drought on the Colorado Plateau or anything else about global climate change, the declining performance of the American economy, and certainly not about the rising cost of gasoline. Nor did they talk about reasoned responses like building high speed rail and regional rapid transit, designing communities that bring people together instead of spreading them out, investing in clean energy sources, and initiating a high-tech investment program designed to conserve natural resources.
But so long as gas prices keep climbing, they’ll soon talk about all of these interlocking issues. The reason: the cost of fuel is a priority for the majority of Americans who live in suburbs and rural areas, and spend hours each day in their vehicles. That national wail you’re about to hear. It’s the sound of people forced to spend $80 to fill their tanks.
A reliably accurate guide to where we are heading with fuel prices is published every week by the Energy Information Administration, a unit of the U.S. Department of Energy. The issue, as these charts show, is supply and demand. The EIA reported that gasoline stocks nationally are 3.2 percent lower than they were a year ago, and prices are 3 percent higher. Moreover the trend lines for supply, demand, and price are moving in ways that will squeeze consumers much harder. At the end of April, gasoline supplies fell to 194.2 million barrels, almost 20 million barrels less than they were at the start of March. Demand, meanwhile, reached 9.163 million barrels a day, or 151,000 barrels a day more than at this time last year. Prices, in other words, are heading higher, significantly higher.
To a suprising extent, millions of Americans and hundreds of astute leaders at the local level have already entered the era of energy efficiency. In Knoxville, Tenn., for instance, downtown lofts are selling out before the buildings are finished even as home values in the suburbs languish. In Minneapolis, the Hiawatha light rail line is attracting vastly more riders than planners initially expected. It’s also generated more than $1 billion in new housing and business development around transit stops. Ford is selling so many Escape and Mariner hybrids that dealerships are apportioned allotments and routinely have none on the showroom floor. California voters last November approved a $37 billion “Rebuild California” bond program that calls for investments in natural resource conservation, public transit, energy-efficient affordable housing, neighborhood school construction, and highway modernization, not capacity building. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a new vision for his city on Earth Day that calls for very similar public investments to lower fiscal costs, improve the quality of life, respond to global climate change, and ensure New York’s global competitiveness.
Sooner, and not later, presidential candidates will start talking about the same ideas. It’ll come when they encounter voters at campaign rallies toting big white signs with red numbers, just like those at convenience stores, that document the rising price of gas.