10/21/2012 09:12 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2012

Why There's No Such Thing As Cheap Gas


This week I spent $65 filling up a tiny car in Oakland, CA, and that was at the off-brand "cheap gas station" in town. I'm not alone - California is experiencing record high gas prices, jumping 50 cents a gallon in one week and shooting well above $5 in some parts of the state, prompting Senator Diane Feinstein to call for a federal investigation into the price spike.

Seriously, what the heck is going on here?

We won't get a reliable explanation answer from the fossil fuels industry, whose typical response to these all-too-frequent spikes is, "More drilling + less environmental protection = cheaper gas prices."

First off, we know a few things about gas prices and drilling. There is "no statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump," according to a 36-year analysis of monthly, inflation-adjusted gasoline prices and U.S. domestic oil production by the Associated Press. U.S. oil production is at a 10-year high, with no significant impact on prices.

We should also note that the uber-wealthy oil companies are pocketing record profits of $500 million every month from Californians, and nationally, an additional 25 cents in the price per gallon of gas at the pump every three months equals an additional $5 billion in profits for the big five oil companies.

Could California's landmark fuel standards and environmental protections be the culprit? The oil industry is quick to make the argument that the pain is self-inflicted.

Here's my issue with this argument: there is no such thing as "cheap gas". Someone is going to pay the bill for less environmental protection, and we all know who it is.

I've written numerous times that Latinos, low-income folks, and other disadvantaged communities are disproportionately paying the price for burning fossil fuels in both economic, and more prominently, public health costs. In fact, California is home to the top 5 most polluted cities in the country according to the American Lung Association, and Latinos make up more than half of all residents in these polluted cities. Add to this the threat posed to all communities by climate change and extreme heat, which exacerbates pollution and public health issues like asthma and other respiratory diseases.

One of the top reasons for all of this devastating pollution is vehicle emissions.

So what now? How do we help all communities, including Latinos who are bearing the brunt of the pain, become less vulnerable to price spikes and public health hazards?

The short answer: We need functional, alternative options to increase mobility and decrease fossil fuel use.

Chief among those options should be investments in alternative fuel vehicles and public transit. And here is the exciting part, it is already happening in California. My colleagues at the Environmental Defense Fund have laid out a terrific analysis of how California's aggressive clean fuel standards help us hedge against spikes in gas prices. Likewise, the Natural Resources Defense Council has produced a bold vision for investing in the state's transit infrastructure. These are excellent starting points for conversations that focus our attention on decreasing our vulnerability and using less fossil fuel.

This current gas-price frenzy feels like just another blip on the yearly debate over high gas prices and who is to blame. While no one can really predict what gas prices will look like in the future, we do know that we will all continue to be subject to price spikes and public health impacts until we realize some fundamental truths: Fossil fuels make us vulnerable, oil companies profit from price-spikes, and strong environmental laws will result in better air quality, more investments in transit, and cleaner, more sustainable fuel sources.

We are paying for fossil fuels with our wallets and our health - there is no such thing as "cheap gas".

Jorge Madrid is a policy fellow with the Environmental Defense Fund, based in San Francisco, CA. He is on the Board of Directors for Voces Verdes, the national independent, non-partisan voice of Latino leaders for the environment.