The plunging price of oil has already had a number of consequences, including:
- providing a financial windfall for lower-income families hardest hit by high energy costs.
- prodding environmentalists to rethink aspects of fracking, which has reduced emissions from America’s power plants.
- making the Keystone pipeline, which Republicans have risibly renamed the Keystone Jobs Bill (it will create 35 permanent ones), as unnecessary as it is ill-advised.
- putting pressure on those who sell oil, from Putin to the Saudis, from ISIS to Exxon.
Perhaps above all, $45-a-barrel oil threatens to aggravate the historic liberal divide between those focused on social justice and those dedicated to environmental protection. At least as far back as John Muir’s battle to stop the Hetch Hetchy dam, economic and environmental progressives have had a wary, often antagonistic, relationship. The latter’s emphasis on wilderness and endangered species protection has often seemed in conflict with the social and economic needs of the poor and unemployed. The environmental justice movement arose to bridge that divide, arguing that the poor suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and insisting that the fate of the earth and the welfare of its people is not about choosing one or the other.
But cheap gas has a way of making people ignore the real costs of energy consumption; and so today we do have a choice: we can burn these momentarily cheap fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow or we can use this fortunate interlude to build a better one.
We could start with a gas tax.