Overton: U.S. weaning off gas

BY JON OVERTON | APRIL 11, 2014 5:00 AM

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Popular culture has a weird fetish for horrific disasters that destroy civilization. Whether it be death by the Yellowstone super-volcano, killer asteroids, a robot uprising, a nuclear holocaust, or climate change, we are weirdly obsessed with the end.

The threats we should be concerned about, however, although not necessarily apocalyptic, are those that could arise quietly as a consequence of our way of life. The potential for gas prices to shoot through the roof in the near future, for example, could really hammer the economy.

On Tuesday, the University of Iowa Public Policy Center hosted a forum in which UI faculty discussed the potential consequences of gas prices rising to roughly $10 per gallon within a few years.

This isn’t unheard of. In the early ’70s, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo on the United States, causing gas prices to shoot through the roof and kicking the global economy where it really hurts.

Our continued economic survival relies on oil, and a sudden price hike could easily launch us right back into a recession. This vulnerability highlights the need for more innovation in fuel conservation, developing new sources of energy, and changing driving habits. Doing this sooner rather than later will lead to a lot less pain and suffering for everyone.

If gas costs shot up, the price of virtually everything would follow because it would cost far more to transport goods. This would put a massive strain on families who are living on tight budgets and borrowed money, said Associate Professor Paul Hanley, the director of the Public Policy Center’s Transportation Policy Research Group.

OPEC, of course, is weaker than in the past. Nowadays, the United States gets substantially more oil from such neighbors as Canada and Mexico. The recent natural-gas boom will probably also help increase the supply of energy, keeping fuel prices down, for now at least.

Even so, demand for oil among developing countries surpassed that of wealthy countries just last year, and if the explosive economic growth from Brazil to Nigeria to China is any indication, demand will continue to go up, up, and away.

But in the end, we’d eventually adapt, as we’ve always done.

John Fuller, a UI professor of urban and regional planning, pointed out that although gas prices are much higher than they were even in the recent past, fuel efficiency has improved substantially and vehicles last longer than they did before.

“The average fuel economy of light trucks has risen to 25 miles per gallon, and the average fuel economy of new cars is greater than 35 miles per gallon,” he said. “Go back 10 years, and those would be surprising figures.”

Susan Chrysler, the director of research at the National Advanced Driving Simulator, predicted that vehicles will become lighter, driving behavior will change to use less gas, alternative fuels will become more widely available, and (at long last) we’re finally going to get cars that drive themselves.

Ideally, fully automated vehicles could communicate with one another so that they’d rarely have to stop, even at most intersections. This would cut down on congestion that the Treasury Department reported wastes 1.9 billion gallons of gas every year.

The enormous price of maintaining the status quo for very long will force us to invest in technology that reduces the burden of high fuel prices, but the sooner and the faster we start changing our habits, the less the eventual transition away from an oil dependent economy will hurt.

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