High gas prices bad for your wallet, good for the environment?

Most people lament high gas prices, wine and moan every time there is any significant increase, and for good reason. We immediately feel the impact of any increase in fuel prices right in our wallets, especially in a car-based commuter town like Los Angeles. High petroleum prices effect us at the gas pump, the mall, and the grocery store as nearly all of the goods we purchase travel via petroleum power at some point. That pain at the pump is not the end of the story though. There are vast benefits to increased fuel prices. Although it may take more of a long-term perspective to realize it, high petroleum prices are forcing society to change some of our bad habits. Because gas is expensive, individuals and industries are looking for a variety of possible methods to decrease their fuel consumption, which has many positive implications.

The environmental impact of burning fossil fuel is well known, and the adverse effects of the subsequent carbon monoxide emissions well documented. We saw a local example of this with Carmageddon, during which UCLA researchers found an 83 percent increase in local air quality due to the decrease in vehicle usage over that period of time, according to a UCLA press release.

The drilling and transportation of gas and oil inevitably leads to leaks and spills. The most obvious cases, like the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill off the Alaskan coast in 1989, and the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011, receive a lot of media attention and spark public outrage for short periods of time, but large leaks occur regularly throughout Africa.

BBC’s website dubbed Nigeria the “world oil pollution capital” in a June 2010 article. There is currently a high profile international legal battle between four Nigerian farmers and the Dutch oil giant Shell before The Hague, concerning the damage oil leaks have created in their region.

Of course, if higher gas prices equal less driving, then there is less traffic and less wear and tear on America’s aging infrastructure. The current 405-freeway improvement project is going to cost an estimated $1.03 billion, according to LA Metro, just to keep up with increased demand and wear on the Los Angeles section of the freeway.

Higher fuel prices also encourage and compel improvements in transportation technology—from huge cargo ships to small passenger vehicles. Manufacturers are trying to improve the efficiency of their products. Elders remember the old days when gas was cheap, and America made big, heavy, sloppy cars with huge, carbureted iron block engines, with virtually no concern for aerodynamics or fuel efficiency. My stepfather had a 6.6 liter Camaro, and you could literally watch the fuel gauge drop towards empty if you accelerated with a sense of urgency.

The 1973 oil crisis sparked the beginning of the end for carbureted engines, and the push fore more efficient fuel delivery systems—namely fuel injection—began.

Anybody that remembers carbureted engines no doubt also remembers how hard it was just to get you car started on a cold day, and the poor performance of the engine until it was properly warmed up. Frequent trips to the mechanic were common just to keep the highly sensitive piece of equipment properly “tuned-up.” Nowadays, we take the ease of use of the ubiquitous electronically injected engine for granted; you get in your car, turn the key, and go.

Believe it or not, increased fuel costs can also benefit the economy. The more expensive it is to transport goods from over sees, the more viable it becomes to produce locally. Those high transportation costs can offset some of the higher costs of doing business in America, where factories have to at least pretend to follow costly environmental and labor regulations.

There is also more money being spent on developing fuel-efficient technologies. Both of those factors can equal more domestic jobs, which are needed now more than ever.

The next time you feel like you want to cry because you had to spend half of your paycheck to fill your gas tank, remember, petroleum is a limited resource, and its extraction, refinement, transportation, and emissions all have a negative impact on the environment.

The greater the cost of that tank of gas, the more our society benefits from a greener planet, a more localized economy, and better personal transportation options.