Cheap fuels true cost: A pandemic that will outlive the coronavirus

As COVID-19 is rapidly making its mark on communities around the globe, many believe the pandemic has had one redeeming value: lower gas prices.

On April 14, the American Automobile Association stated that due to the lowest demand for gas in 27 years, the average price of gas per gallon nationally has fallen to $1.85, the lowest in four years. In Goshen today, you can find gas prices as low as $1.22 per gallon, down more than $1.30 from a year ago. 

Despite the low gas prices, people are unable to take advantage due to various lockdowns and travel bans across many states. The lower fuel consumption mixed with less travel by plane and closing of brick and mortar stores has provided a silver lining to the pandemic.

Nitrogen dioxide levels are increasing in West Coast cities like San Diego, the Venice canals are clearer than ever and countries most affected by the virus have seen plummeting carbon dioxide levels.

The environmental outcomes that have transpired in response to COVID-19 has environmentalists and climate-concerned citizens thinking about how these solutions can be applied once the pandemic ceases. 

“If we can think about how to prepare for climate change like a pandemic, maybe there will be a positive outcome to all of this,” Christopher Jones, lead developer of climate research at CoolClimate Network based out of the University of California, Berkeley, said in a CNBC article published a month ago. “We can help prevent crises in the future if we are prepared. I think there are some big-picture lessons here that could be very useful.”

Fuel consumption and its hefty cost to the environment is one of the lessons that can be learned. 

As one of the key contributors to climate change, transportation accounts for 29 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In response to this, over a decade ago, some members of the Goshen community recognized the power of disincentivizing personal fuel consumption, specifically their gas-buying habits. 

In 2008, Karl Shelly, pastor of Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen and adjunct professor at Goshen College, heard word of a voluntary gas tax movement started in Harrisonburg, Virginia and wanted to bring the idea to Goshen.

“It’s counterintuitive and crazy: Nobody wants to pay more in taxes,” Shelly said.

But after talking with attendees of Assembly and other community members, Shelly eventually piqued the interest of 28 households to participate in a voluntary gas tax. 

At its core, the Goshen VGT had a three-pronged mission that could be found on one of their fliers.

We do this to change our own gas-buying behavior, raise money for organizations working to break the public’s oil habit, and raise awareness that the price we pay for gas doesn’t come close to covering the environmental and foreign policy cost of our addiction to oil.

Throughout the year, members recorded their gasoline purchases and based on those values, calculated a 50 cent or more tax per gallon of gas purchased.

Over the course of the next six years, the group of about 15 to 17 regular contributors raised about $21,000 for local organizations working to solve environmental and social justice issues. The group donated to causes including The Window, Haiti Reforestation via Mennonite Central Committee and LaCasa Inc.

Glenn Gilbert, director of facilities at Goshen College and former member of the VGT, says that  whether the gas tax is voluntary or mandated by state or federal governments, the notion is critical to how we view the true cost of gas consumption. “We’re not going to wait to do the right thing.”

Fortunately for the lives of millions around the world, COVID-19 will not last forever. However, the response to the economic downturn of countries across the globe will have major implications on the climate crisis that has seen hope amid the pandemic. 

Bailouts to oil and gas companies, stimulus packages and various ‘back-to-work’ initiatives have the potential to create lasting acceleration to the climate crisis for years to come. 

Shelly and Gilbert remind those interested in solving this problem that the solution can start in the smallest and most personal of ways, like a voluntary gas tax. 

“If we wait on elected officials, federal or state, to increase the price of gasoline to reflect its true cost, we’ll be waiting forever,” Shelly said.

Nick Yutzy, Executive Editor
Nick Yutzy, Executive Editor
Written by Nick Yutzy, Executive Editor

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