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Gassing up

Skyrocketing oil prices will eventually change the way we all live, one way or another.

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As I write this, a litre of gas costs $1.23 in Halifax---down from $1.34 earlier this week thanks to an intervention by the Utility and Review Board. While most experience pump rage and wilderness-type voices say it's a good thing (which it is, long term), the spiking price of gas is the inevitable beginning of the end.

You can abuse people's rights, lie to them, beat them down in the streets and throw them in jails, and aside from the hippies and their lawyers no one says boo. But let their gas get too expensive and shit goes postal.

Christopher Steiner, a civil engineer and Forbes muckraker (kind of an oxymoron), writes in his 2009 book $20 Per Gallon it's because the price of gas is linked directly to the price of oil, which is in everything, that we go so freakonomical when we see big numbers at the pumps: "It's the bricks in your walls, the plastic in your refrigerator, the asphalt on your roads, the shingles on your roof, the synthetic rubber in your ball."

So spiking oil prices are linked to skyrocketing everything prices. In North America, perhaps because we have something resembling democracy, we're slow to turf our overlords. But, like good economic units, we respond to high prices by demanding less. The International Energy Agency reports that in rich countries, demand for oil is falling for the first time in two years.

But the price of oil is also linked to a lot of other interesting trends. A few years ago Time magazine reported that high gas prices were causing people to switch to more fuel efficient vehicles and merge their errands into fewer trips, move downtown, and bring overseas manufacturing facilities back home, creating local jobs. One health-economics prof working with Time calculated that more than 2,000 lives were saved in each year of high gas prices in the United States, thanks to reduced air pollution.

Now even Republican senator Lamar Alexander wants a silver lining; he's pushing to spend $3 billion on electric cars. But his party also wants to get rid of pesky environmental restrictions hampering the oil industry. Shrug.

Oil is getting harder and more expensive to access, and no effort to keep it cheap can be more than a Band-Aid. Steiner predicts revolutionary economic change resulting from expensive oil. Forgive the American measurements and pricing, but, he says that at $6 a gallon road infrastructure will crumble. So, no more multimillion dollar highway extensions for rural Nova Scotia? What will be promised during elections?

Steiner adds that we'll stop crisscrossing the globe at $8 a gallon and at $14 we can dance on the ruins of Walmart because importing made-in-China ceramic Santas won't make sense anymore. Finally, at $20 we'll create that localized walking/biking/mass transit/community garden urban paradise. Only it'll be nuclear-powered. (He does write for Forbes.)

Washington University (in St. Louis) economist Charles Courtemanche has noted how cheap oil has hurt our health. He found that 13 percent of the American rise in obesity is thanks to a decline in the real price of gas, and predicted that every extra dollar per gallon at the pumps would reduce obesity 15 percent within three years of the change.

High fuel prices are particularly hard on Nova Scotians. For us, oil isn't just a link to the general price of goods. In most cases it's how we stay warm at night. And public transit? Sucks here. As long as our jobs pay more per week than the cost of a tank of gas or two, most of us won't be dusting off the old Schwinn.

But advocating tax cuts on gas, as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation does, is dumbsighted. Government should cut the $2 billion in annual tax breaks it gives big oil companies and reinvest it in public transit and energy relief for poor people.

Steiner surely knew he was poking a hornet's nest with his $20 Per Gallon arguments; no one likes optimism buried under crumbling infrastructure. But given the choice between dying in a never-ending Nova Scotia hurricane, fighting a revolution or seeing tough economic times jolt us into sustainable living, I'll take the latter.

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