Dems want to cut emissions and gas prices. Are they at odds?

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, May 25, 2018

Some of the Democrats who have been most aggressive on climate change policy are calling on President Trump to lower gas prices.

But higher gas prices could discourage driving — the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country.

Several Democratic senators gathered at a Capitol Hill gas station for a press conference where they slammed Trump’s “reckless decision” to exit the Iran nuclear deal. That move, they argue, has pushed oil and gasoline prices upward. Ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, the Democrats urged Trump to pressure other countries to boost oil supplies to lower prices at the pump (E&E News PM, May 23).

Those who publicly excoriated Trump were Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.). They’ve all been vocal advocates for climate policy. Schumer boasted in 2015 that Congress might enact a carbon tax if Hillary Clinton won the White House, and Cantwell co-sponsored a Senate carbon pricing bill in 2009 (E&E Daily, June 24, 2015). When they were members of the House, Menendez co-sponsored carbon cap-and-trade legislation in 2005, and Markey was a co-author of cap-and-trade legislation that cleared that chamber in 2009.

Now that those Democrats are attempting to score political points by hammering Trump on gas prices, their critics are accusing them of hypocrisy.

“They seem perfectly comfortable with the idea of raising gas prices with the idea of a carbon tax,” said Mike McKenna, a GOP energy lobbyist and strategist. “I’m pretty sure someone’s going to take a picture of Schumer in front of the Exxon station and say, ‘See this guy complaining about high gas prices, he’s teeing up a vote to do it right now.'”

The push against higher gas prices may also put some of their fellow Democrats in an awkward position.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) is facing a GOP-led effort on the November ballot to repeal an increase in the gas tax he muscled through the state Legislature last year to pay for roads (see related story). Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) lost his fight earlier this year to pass a $20-per-ton carbon tax that would have increased gas prices by 6 to 10 percent. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced a $49-per-ton carbon fee bill in the Senate earlier this year.

Many environmentalists want to limit drivers’ gasoline use. “The obvious advantage to using less fuel is less pollution, less dependence on foreign oil,” said Dan Becker, the director of the Safe Climate Campaign.

The relationship between gas prices and driving is nuanced. Higher gas prices work as a disincentive to some degree. A National Bureau of Economic Research study estimated that a 10-cent increase in the gas tax would decrease transportation-sector carbon emissions by about 1.5 percent while cutting total U.S. carbon emissions by about 0.5 percent.

“If we had a magic wand and could control gas prices, that would be interesting, but it’s not even clear that would work,” said Becker.

That National Bureau of Economic Research study also acknowledged that modeling long-term impacts is difficult because Americans can change their driving patterns or switch vehicles. When gas prices cracked $4 10 years ago, overall driving decreased — but only by a few percentage points.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects gasoline prices to average $2.95 per gallon this summer, 61 cents higher than last year. They are already up 56 cents over the past 12 months.

Those behind the gas price attack say it’s consistent with their environmental policies.

“There’s no hypocrisy here at all,” said Paul Bledsoe, an energy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.

“It’s perfectly legitimate to point out that higher gas prices are hurting middle-class families and they’re rising in part because Trump has left the Iran deal, and that Democrats have policies that would reduce emissions from the automotive sector and save consumers money, unlike Trump,” he added.

The Trump administration is also putting the finishing touches on its proposal to roll back fuel economy targets for automakers. Bledsoe wrote an op-ed for The New York Times earlier this month criticizing that proposal.

Bledsoe pointed to an analysis by the Rhodium Group that found that the freeze in fuel economy the Trump administration considered in a leaked draft would increase oil consumption such that American drivers would pay an additional $193 billion to $236 billion for fuel through 2035.

“We can lower gas prices, but it shouldn’t be on the backs of consumers,” Markey said in a statement to E&E News. “For example, strong fuel economy emissions standards, the most important step the United States has taken to address climate change, save consumers money at the pump and reduce our dependence on oil. But the Trump administration wants to roll back these historic standards, jeopardizing billions in savings for American consumers and a cleaner environment.”