Who would have thought the day would come when environmentalists would want to high-five Gregg Easterbrook?

Yes, the same Gregg Easterbrook who memorably dismissed widespread criticisms of the Bush administration’s environmental record as “baloney — baloney being rolled and deep-fried with cheese for purposes of partisan political bashing and fund-raising” in a Los Angeles Times op-ed in October 2003. [Read a past Muckraker column on this.]

Easterbrook has finally made a cogent — and possibly pivotal — environmental argument.

On Tuesday, he published an op-ed in The New York Times entitled “The 50-Cent-a-Gallon Solution” arguing that despite the current American conniption fit over rising gas prices, an even bigger pinch at the pump is exactly what we need.

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Getting pumped up.

“Had federal gas taxes gone up 50 cents a gallon 10 years ago … [t]he S.U.V. and pickup-truck crazes would not have occurred,” wrote Easterbrook. “[G]reenhouse-gas emissions in this country would be lower; [and] Persian Gulf oil states would have less influence on the global economy and less significance to American foreign policy.” And it’s not too late to make amends, he says: “[T]he United States would still be wise today if it increased gasoline taxes by the same amount now.”

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His message won’t go over well with owners of Ford Excursions and the like, who already shell out up to $100 to fill their monstrous tanks, nor with the many other American drivers boggled by the roughly 50 percent rise in oil prices over the last year ($40 per barrel today, compared to $26 a year ago).

But it should ring true for a number of leading Democrats — and anyone else who believes that it’s time for America to get serious about shifting to a more sustainable energy system. So why did we hear a chorus of normally eco-savvy Dems last week demanding that the Bush administration take urgent measures to lower gas prices and get the crude flowing faster?

Last Tuesday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) submitted a resolution along with a group of Senate Democrats — several of them longtime friends of the environmental community, including Schumer himself, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), and Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) — calling on the Bush administration to release 1 million barrels of oil a day for up to 60 days from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

“Gas prices are burning a hole in New Yorkers’ wallets, putting at risk the economic recovery, and the administration insists on throwing fuel on the fire … they are buying oil on the market and driving up prices even higher,” Schumer said at a press conference. He didn’t say a word, however, about the environmental or geopolitical impacts of America’s gas-guzzling.

Democratic presidential contender John Kerry has also been roasting Bush on gas prices. “Where’s the president?” he asked during a campaign swing last Tuesday to the battleground state of Oregon. “George Bush has no plan, doesn’t address it, doesn’t seem to care that every American family is paying more to go to work, for the products that they get, to be able to get to school, to be able to do all of the things that Americans do in the course of a summer.” A week later he returned to Portland, Ore., to hammer home the message once again, arguing it was high time for Bush to pressure OPEC to open its spigots.

Kerry on the Oregon (campaign) trail.

Photo: JohnKerry.com.

Kerry also talked this past week about making environmentally sensible shifts to U.S. energy policy, advocating advances in renewable-energy development and energy-efficiency technologies, as well as tax incentives for the manufacture and purchase of efficient vehicles. These are the sorts of forward-thinking measures he has promoted perhaps more doggedly than any other politician during his 20 years in the Senate. In fact, Kerry has advocated higher gas taxes in the past — as Bush’s campaign never tires of pointing out — despite the fact that he’s now distancing himself from that line of thinking.

Many energy economists will tell you that higher gas prices are precisely the kind of market signal we need to convince Americans to buy more efficient cars and make the real, sustainable changes to our energy system that Kerry advocates. Europe and Japan, for instance, are leaps and bounds ahead of America in both producing and consuming fuel-efficient cars — in no small part because gas prices in those countries are usually about double those in the U.S.

“There’s no question that higher gas prices are an important tool to help shift American consumers toward more efficient cars and a more sustainable energy plan,” said Ashok Gupta, chief energy economist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But most consumers don’t understand this — they don’t see the long view. We need leaders who can help explain why.”

Gupta added that there are ways to defray the impact of higher gas prices on low-income Americans, so they don’t bear the brunt of such a policy shift. Easterbrook explained this idea clearly in his op-ed: “[N]ew gasoline taxes could be revenue-neutral — intended to discourage oil waste rather than fill government coffers, with other taxes cut as the pump tax rises. Ideally, proceeds from a revenue-neutral gasoline tax could be used to reduce income taxes and payroll taxes of the poor and lower middle class.”

But Democrats aren’t willing to risk trying to communicate this idea during the current campaign season, and even some enviros don’t blame them.

“It’s political suicide in an election year to tell voters they’re just going to have to suck up higher gas prices,” said one staffer at a national environmental group who asked to remain anonymous. “Not even [my organization] can come out and say this — and especially not a Democratic candidate trying to reclaim the presidency. Only someone with a bully pulpit like Easterbrook can make this point.”

Gas prices are certainly a kitchen-table issue for voters — in particular, lower- and middle-class voters. On May 13, Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott Jr. estimated that the average American consumer is spending $7 a week less at the company’s stores in order to balance out their rising gas costs. And in a conference call between the press and three Democratic governors last week, Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa pointed out that the current spike in gas prices translates into a total hit to Americans of $42 billion.

Mark Longabaugh, the League of Conservation Voters‘ senior vice president for political affairs, argued that Kerry’s approach to the issue is only logical: “Politically speaking, it makes sense for Kerry to point out that gas prices have risen on George Bush’s watch,” he said. “Bush and Cheney are oilmen — these are the guys saying drill, drill, drill. Clearly their efforts are not solving the problem for the environment, and they’re not solving the problem for consumers either. That’s a reasonable point to make in election year.”

Kerry’s campaign, for its part, points out that energy efficiency can’t dig the U.S. out of current short-term problems: “Look, you and I could come out and say we need to improve CAFE standards by 10 miles per gallon by next week, but we both know it takes time to do that,” Heather Zichal, energy policy director for the Kerry campaign, told Muckraker. “It takes years to see those results. Kerry has an obligation to balance long-term energy planning with short-term planning, and to ease the burden on working citizens.”

But pressuring OPEC to open its spigots or Bush to open the SPR won’t do much for gas prices in the near term either. “Neither of these efforts would result in any real price changes for at least several months, if at all,” said Gupta.

Ultimately, short-term, election-year opportunism is overshadowing smart, long-term energy planning. Given the imbroglio in the Middle East and mounting concerns over global warming, it seems that Democrats are selling Americans short if they don’t think voters can appreciate the message that it’s time to make real, sustainable changes to our energy system. And slightly higher gas prices may be the price we pay for that shift.