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Thursday, May 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Guest columnist

We can handle the truth about higher gas prices

Special to The Times

The signs of a new, brighter energy future are busting out all over.

They're popping up in the form of Sound Transit's new light-rail towers and King County's proposal to expand bus service. They're at the auto dealer, where more hybrid and flex-fuel vehicles are available. They're in communities across Washington where the biofuel and wind-power industries are making huge new investments in homegrown alternatives to fossil fuel. Farmers, entrepreneurs, investors — they're all planting seeds for a cleaner, more secure energy future.

But they're going too slowly. While promising solutions are emerging, our addiction is still getting worse, and it's killing us. War, climate disruption and economic insecurity are among its symptoms.

Now that we can see real pictures of the post-fossil-fuel future — now that it seems so tantalizingly possible — what can we do to accelerate it?

We can start by accepting a simple truth: Fossil fuels are very costly. We pay some of the cost at the pump. But we pay much more in the form of growing national insecurity due to dependence on oil. We pay in the form of climate disruption — more intense storms, water shortages, ocean sterilization. We pay not just through the nose but through our lungs, our economies, our declining standing in the world.

It's Econ 101: The more fossil fuels we use, the more costly they get. That's what the price of gas is beginning to tell us: the truth of limited supply.

This truth can set us free. High, truthful fossil-fuel prices send a powerful signal to consumers, investors and entrepreneurs: Stop pouring more money into the fossil-fuel hole. Put it into things that won't run out — like the sun and the wind and plantfuels and more-efficient vehicles and buildings. Put it into transportation choices. Put it into our endless capacity to innovate.

But the truth won't set us free if we won't hear it. And so far, our leaders are running from this truth like the plague. They seem to think, as the Jack Nicholson character said in "A Few Good Men," "You can't handle the truth."

The president says we're addicted to oil. So does it really make sense to treat our addiction by trying to lower the price of gasoline?

The president's strategy to control prices is to repeal environmental protections, drill in a wildlife refuge and expand refineries in our poorest communities. Democrats have suggested price controls and suspending fuel taxes. Political consultants on both sides feed our leaders the same advice: People don't want to hear the truth of costly fossil fuels. Tell them anything, but not the truth.

One enterprising e-mail campaign proposes that consumers boycott Exxon Mobil. The theory is that if we don't buy from Exxon, it'll have to lower prices, touching off a price war.

An economist quoted on public radio says it won't work. The announcer asked, "Well then, what can consumers do about gas prices?" The economist had a two-word answer: "Drive less."

Won't the truth of high fossil-fuel prices fall especially hard on those who can least afford it? Yes. And that's why we should invest in alternatives that are practical and affordable for everyone. We can't avoid the truth by making the lie more affordable.

Another truth follows from the truth of high fossil-fuel prices: We've got to use less. Fortunately, when it comes to fossil fuel consumption, less is better.

Less fossil fuel is more clean air. It's more money in our communities for more important things. It's more time with our families and less in traffic. It's healthier lifestyles, more livable communities, a more-stable climate. It's more jobs in the clean-energy industries of the future. It's a better relationship with the rest of the world, which is not amused by the fact that with less than 5 percent of the people, we consume over 40 percent of the gasoline.

Consumers can do something about high gas prices. We can buy less. We can drive efficient cars and cars that burn biofuels — no free lunch, but an increasingly attractive alternative to petroleum. We can build thriving communities for people instead of cars and invest in practical transportation choices.

We can keep telling ourselves the lies that sustain our addiction. Or we can hear the truth in high gas prices — and build our future on it.

K.C. Golden is policy director for Climate Solutions,, a regional group working on practical solutions to global warming.

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