In this post, David echoes what seems to be conventional eco-wisdom on high gas prices:

It’s good that gas prices are rising. We want people to buy more fuel-efficient cars and drive less.

I’m not so certain.

Sure, high prices will spur people to use less gas. But the incentives cut both ways: high prices also spur energy companies to produce more oil. And now that most of the world’s easy-to-reach, easy-to-refine oil has already been put to the drill, high prices are making some seriously malevolent projects — Canadian oil sands come to mind — turn the corner from speculative boondoggles to respectable profit-centers.

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My post here is way too longwinded, but eventually gets at the same point: energy companies are starting to give super-carbon-intensive projects, like shale oil and coal-based petroleum substitutes, a closer look. When oil’s cheap, those sorts of things make no sense. When oil’s pricey, they start to pencil out.

And more broadly, when oil prices rise, oil companies/monarchies get even richer — which means they have even more weight to throw around. (Notice, for example, that pollutions safeguards were the first policy casualty of the latest price spike.)

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Now, I’m not saying that gas should be cheaper at the pump — and I’m with David in thinking that Americans might as well get used to paying more; there’s not a whole lot that consumers can do right now, other than hope they live and work in places that don’t require them to drive much.

But I am saying that enviros shouldn’t think of high gas prices as a good substitute for high gas taxes. They seem like the same thing, but they’re not; and I’m sure that there are plenty of oil company execs who hope that people lose sight of the distinction.