Spoils of Pricier Oil

Gasoline is still relatively less expensive than in decades past - once you factor out inflation. But that fact hasn't prevented price shock at the pump. Nor a global gasp as crude oil prices hit record highs this month, topping $45 a barrel.

That's a 39 percent hike from a year ago, and analysts say it might go higher.

Don't blame OPEC, however, for this latest markup. The oil cartel has little excess capacity.

Rather, one cause is a record and rising consumer demand for oil, especially in China. Another is uncertainty over the oil exports of three major producing countries that currently have domestic problems ranging from war (Iraq) to political powerplays (Russia and Venezuela).

While the higher oil prices have dampened economic growth, they do serve two useful purposes.

They're another wake-up call that available crude-oil reserves are expected to decline by mid-21st century. And they're a reminder that the best incentive for switching to alternative energy sources or better conservation is to keep oil prices high - and, most of all, steadily high.

That idea of maintaining high prices brings the topic around to a proposal John Kerry endorsed a decade ago but which he dare not utter as a presidential nominee: raise the federal gasoline tax by 50 cents.

More than one politician has been singed by proposing such a consumer tax. Republicans are now trying to tar Mr. Kerry with his past endorsement of the idea. But both parties need to move away from such irrational populism and instead take a stand for weaning Americans off oil.

Both Kerry and President Bush have plans with the goal of "energy independence." While they differ on ways to get there, they both can endorse one idea: Investors in energy alternatives, such as wind, solar, "clean" coal, and hydrogen-run cars, as well as in conservation, need the certainty of high oil prices to advance those expensive technologies toward economies of scale and market sustainability - and toward the day when oil runs out.

Imagine if the US had had a decade of a 50-cent or higher add-on to the gas tax. Fewer people would have bought SUVs. Roads would be less crowded. Suburban sprawl would be slower. Air pollution would be less.

In all, the US would be further along in moving away from an oil-based economy, which it needs to do quickly.

So go ahead and wince once at the high oil prices. But then think twice about how the collective sacrifice of a higher gas tax could bring about a shift from oil by choice and foresight, rather than by last-minute necessity.

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