Air Date: Week of September 10, 1999
Gas prices in the San Francisco Bay Area are setting records and drivers are getting angry. But some environmentalists see an opportunity: higher gas prices may help keep some cars off the road and that could bring a reprieve for deteriorating air quality. Nathan Johnson has our story.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's been a summer of
discontent for northern California drivers. While gas prices rose sharply nationwide, on the West Coast they set records, with some grades peaking at nearly $2.00 a gallon. Some accuse oil companies of price gouging, and the state Attorney General's office is investigating. But high demand and a series of refinery accidents have tightened supplies of the cleaner-burning fuel required for California. Meanwhile, some environmental activists sense an opportunity. Higher gas prices may help reduce pollution and highway congestion. Nathan Johnson has our story.
JOHNSON: Here in downtown San Francisco, the cost of gasoline is up sharply, and about the only people not complaining? Environmentalists. Clifford Cobb is a senior fellow with the nonprofit group Redefining Progress. He says when gas prices go up, there's a hope people will change their driving habits, like in Europe, where gas costs two or three times as much.
COBB: There's an expectation among some people that we will have cities that look like European cities, and that we will have mass transit systems that are like the ones they have there, and that people will drive less and take the train between cities, and the car will recede in importance, overall, in American life. That would be the hope.
JOHNSON: But in the end, if prices go up, do people really drive less?
BORNSTEIN: In the short run, people are not very sensitive at all to the price of gasoline.
JOHNSON: Severin Bornstein is Director of the University of California Energy Institute.
BORNSTEIN: The best estimates say that a 50 percent increase in the price of gasoline, which is a huge increase, leads to maybe a five percent decrease in the amount of gasoline used, so it's a very small response. What seems to actually push people out of their cars is when it becomes too inconvenient to use them.
JOHNSON: Traffic and parking can be unbearable in the Bay Area, but cars are still the easiest way to get around. Public transportation is not well developed. And because the area's economy is red hot, many people can easily afford to pay the $1.75 a gallon or more.
BORNSTEIN: The typical two-car family burns about 80 gallons a month, so a 50 cent increase is a $40 a month or a bit more than a dollar a day increase in the price of gasoline. Now, that's noticeable for many people, although it's less than some people spend on coffee every morning.
JOHNSON: Northern Californians aren't driving a lot less, that's clear. But experts say high gas prices can convince people to buy cars that get better mileage, like in the 1970s when many people switched to small, imported cars from Japan.
JOHNSON: Today, the equivalent to high-mileage imports may be new ultra- efficient hybrids and electric vehicles.
SLAVIN: And there you have the engine compartment of an electric car...
JOHNSON: Here at the Saturn dealership a few miles north of San Francisco, Pat Slavin sells the EV-1, an electric car made by General Motors. Showing off the car, she's like a proud parent.
SLAVIN: See how much cuter ours is? The car does not need a key to open it. Everybody has their own pin that can be used...
JOHNSON: Ms. Slavin says she's leased every electric car on the lot.
SLAVIN: I had a tremendous amount of phone calls, about three months ago when the prices really jumped up. We were all kind of taken unaware, I think. I don't have anyone that comes in here now to buy a car, that is not thinking about gas mileage.
JOHNSON: Even though interest in alternative vehicles is picking up, there's still a huge demand for gas guzzlers. A dealership next door can sell 80 sport utility vehicles for every EV-1 that leaves here. Plus, the electric cars go for around $40,000. That's a lot of money, especially for those with low incomes.
JOHNSON: North Richmond is across the bay from the Saturn dealership. It's a residential area boxed in by two major freeways and a heavy industrial zone, including a Chevron oil refinery. Small one-story homes are spaced tightly together. Clothing is strung up to die in yards. There's a broken down vehicle on almost every block.
(A door opens)
JOHNSON: Inside the Missionary Baptist Church on Filbert Street, there's a side room. It's been made into a job resource center.
(A phone rings)
WALLACE: So the employee can -- oh, okay. Tomorrow -- Wednesday?
(Several voices speak at once)
JOHNSON: Joe Wallace is a staff member here. He says high prices hit hardest in poor neighborhoods, because they're isolated and not well served by public transit.
WALLACE: We have no services here. That means for shopping, for laundry, for a doctor's appointment, anything that we need here in North Richmond, we have to go outside our area to get it. So that means that, first of all, the first thing that we have to think about is transportation costs.
WATKINS: I feel affected by it, and a lot of people are really affected by it. Because you need gas, you know, if you're not on public transportation you need gas.
JOHNSON: Richmond resident Kalisa Watkins.
WATKINS: I used to be able to fill up my car with, like, $15, and now it's like $20-something to fill up. I may have to fill up my tank maybe two times out of the week, two or three times. And that's, like, you know, $60-some dollars, for a single parent a week. That's like another bill for me.
JOHNSON: So what about all the extra money paid at the pump this summer? Environmentalists say higher prices could in theory be used to pay for the damage cars cost, things like air and water pollution. But for now, that's not happening. The money is being lost to the oil industry, with nothing much gained for the environment. For Living on Earth, this is Nathan Johnson in San Francisco.
MAN 1: It sucked in a $20 bill, and the pump won't work.
MAN 2: You lifted up the red handle over there, right?
MAN 1: I've lifted the red handle.
MAN 2: Try pushing it down and lift it back up...
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