Normative Narratives

Economic Outlook: Time To Raise The Gas Tax

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gas prcies tax

black lines represent significant increases in gas tax

Due to a number of factors, mainly the explosion of natural gas “fracking”, global oil prices have fallen steeply over the past 5 months. As highlighted in a recent NYT analysis, this is predominantly a good thing:

The plunge in oil prices — to about $66 a barrel from over $107 in late June — has many pundits wringing their hands. They have cited the risks of falling prices and social and political unrest overseas, not to mention the economic threat to the booming mid-American oil basin, running from Texas to North Dakota and Alberta.

“Every time you get a sudden move in oil prices, people say, ‘This is it, we’re finished,’ ” said Daniel Yergin, the author of “The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World,” and vice chairman of the energy consulting firm IHS. “People seem to forget that oil is a commodity, and like other commodities, its price moves in cycles set by supply and demand.”

While circumstances are never exactly the same, and the impact of cheap oil can be difficult to isolate from other economic factors, the broad consequence in each of these instances was the same: They stimulated global economic growth. Dr. Yergin estimated that global economic output would grow this year by an additional four-tenths of a percent with oil prices at $80 a barrel. If oil stays below $80, he said, “We may revise that to five-tenths.”

This year, the precipitating factor has been the waning of threats of disruption from Russia and the Middle East, slowing economies in Europe and Asia and, above all, a surge in production from the United States and Canada. “This time, the innovation is fracking,” said Philip Verleger, president of an energy consulting firm and former director of the Office of Energy Policy in the Treasury Department. “The sudden surge in U.S. oil production has profoundly changed the dynamics of the markets. The oil exporters have lost a third of the market they thought they’d have in 2014.”

OPEC met on Thanksgiving, but shocked markets when its members didn’t even pay lip service to the need for production cuts or price discipline. The price of oil, traded on international markets, fell about 6.5 percent that day. “Their strategy is to let prices fall and squeeze out the higher-cost producers,” Mr. Verleger said. “It’s a battle for market share.”

The time is ripe for raising the federal gas tax. I know what you may be thinking: if low oil prices increase consumption and spur economic growth, raising the gas tax will squander this economic boon. This is a classic growth killing tax!

But historically speaking, the last 3 major increases of the federal gas tax have not had a significant impact on consumer gas prices (see picture above). How is this possible?

A recurring theme here at Normative Narratives is the disconnect between industry rhetoric and market realities. Oil industry execs and lobbyists would have you believe than any increase in the gas tax will have to be passed on directly to the consumer–the reality is more nuanced.

Gas companies must compete amongst themselves–the industry realizes sizable profit margins (which can take a hit in the name of maintaining / increasing market share), and have seen a major dip in the price of their primary input, crude oil (true profits from selling American crude will also fall, but since America is a net oil importer, overall lower prices benefit American gas companies). Any gas company that tries to pass on the tax in the form of higher prices risks pricing themselves out of the market.

What are the benefits of raising the federal gas tax you ask? The gas tax feeds into the Highway Trust Fund, which in recent years has teetered on the brink of insolvency, relying on stopgap funding from the general treasury to finance highway construction and repairs.

Not surprisingly, there are huge economic costs associated with underinvestment in America’s highways:

Targeted efforts to improve conditions and significant reductions in highway fatalities resulted in a slight improvement in the roads grade to a D this year. However, forty-two percent of America’s major urban highways remain congested, costing the economy an estimated $101 billion in wasted time and fuel annually. While the conditions have improved in the near term, and federal, state, and local capital investments increased to $91 billion annually, that level of investment is insufficient and still projected to result in a decline in conditions and performance in the long term. Currently, the Federal Highway Administration estimates that $170 billion in capital investment would be needed on an annual basis to significantly improve conditions and performance.

The Highway Trust Fund once financed one of the most ambitious and economically beneficial public works projects in American History–the interstate highway system. But because of how the gas tax was structured–as a flat excise tax–the fund is now unable to adequately maintain our interstate highways.

The amount the gas tax should be raised is open to debate (previous increases of about 5 cents per gallon have had no discernible effect on average gas prices); the graphs below provide a potential benchmark. The costs of raising the tax would fall largely on major corporations (not consumers), while an improved interstate highway system would benefit everybody.

Update:

Thomas Friedman of the NYT has an interesting Op-Ed where he discusses Climate Change and the Gas Tax:

But what if Verleger is right — that just as the cost of computing dropped following the introduction of the PC, fracking technology could flood the world with cheaper and cheaper oil, making it a barrier to reducing emissions? There is one way out of this dilemma. Let’s make a hard political choice that’s a win for the climate, our country and our kids: Raise the gasoline tax.

“U.S. roads are crumbling,” said Verleger. “Infrastructure is collapsing. Our railroads are a joke.” Meantime, gasoline prices at the pump are falling toward $2.50 a gallon — which would be the lowest national average since 2009 — and consumers are rushing to buy S.U.V.’s and trucks. The “clear solution,” said Verleger, is to set a price of, say, $3.50 a gallon for gasoline in America, and then tax any price below that up to that level. Let the Europeans do their own version. “And then start spending the billions on infrastructure right now. At a tax of $1 per gallon, the U.S. could raise around $150 billion per year,” he said. “The investment multiplier would give a further kick to the U.S. economy — and might even start Europe moving.”

I am not advocating for such a steep increase in the gas tax, as such a plan would amount to regressive taxation on consumers and would be a political nonstarter.

But the article does raise the valid point that lower gas prices could hamper the global push to reduce GHG emissions.

Update (1/8/15):

Good news everyone!

Today Reuters published an article proclaiming that raising the gas tax has gained some congressional support.

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One thought on “Economic Outlook: Time To Raise The Gas Tax

  1. Pingback: Economic Outlook: Time To Raise The Gas Tax | operation CDL

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