Today’s soaring gas prices have nothing to do with climate change. There was no climate tax or gas tax or revoked drilling lease that prompted the market to go haywire. Rather, the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s effect on the commodity market coupled with inflation led prices to reach their record highs. Nonetheless, the gas prices started some interesting conversations in the climate community. Are efforts to ramp up oil production and bring gas prices back down warranted or counterproductive? What would high gas prices do for the climate if sustained long term?
Personally, I find that discussion a bit short-sighted. If high gas prices were used purposefully in the name of climate change, that would be a very risky move. With the exception of cities with superb public transit, there is not a short-term alternative to buying gasoline. Long-term, yes, people can buy electric cars. But when a mom or dad in the suburbs stops for gas on the way to work and sees $4.50 per gallon, there’s no plan B. As such, high gas prices likely would not deter a lot of consumption and just leave people frustrated and financially strained. If people were under the impression that it was a government-imposed “climate tax” rather than a consequence of a historic international conflict, that frustration would go double.
Even long-term, anyone who has a reasonably fuel efficient vehicle would environmentally (and financially) be better served continuing to drive their current car to the end of its life than junking it for a new electric car due to the emissions generated in the car manufacturing process. Transitioning drivers to electric cars must be done extremely delicately to achieve the optimal climate impact while being mindful of everyone’s pocketbooks, and tossing around a tax on gas in the name of climate change may be ineffective or even counterproductive. Fortunately, that is a mostly theoretical conversation, since very few gas taxes exist in the name of climate change—most gas taxes are implemented in order to fund road repair and infrastructure expansion.
That’s why while the climate community is on the topic of high gas prices, I propose a different conversation: how do we address the fact that high gas prices can actually be caused by extreme weather events?
As summer turns to fall, U.S. gas prices typically go down. But when Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana in September 2021, gas prices rose by 1.3 cents per gallon. Ida caused the loss of over 30 million barrels of oil production in the Gulf of Mexico.
When Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana in August 2020, gas prices rose by 9.2 cents per gallon after the storm forced the closure of several Gulf Coast refineries.
When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August 2017, gas prices rose by 17 cents per gallon. Nearly 20% of total U.S. refinery capacity shut down due to the storm. Prices in Texas rose 21 cents, and some stations in San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth ran out of gas.
When Hurricane Ike hit Texas in September 2008, gas prices rose by 11 cents per gallon. Already reeling from Hurricane Gustav, the region saw gasoline stocks hit their lowest levels in seven years.
When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in August 2005, some parts of the U.S. saw gas prices rise by as much as 40 cents per gallon. Katrina eliminated about 95 percent of oil production in the Gulf, and left many gas stations across the country low on supplies.
Why are hurricanes on the Gulf Coast consistently sending national gas prices into a tizzy? 44% of the United States’ oil refining capacity is located on the Gulf Coast. The Gulf Coast supplies gasoline for the whole country, essentially. With such a large share of oil refineries in this one region, American gas prices may become increasingly volatile during late summer as climate change continues and worse and worse hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast.
Worse yet, the concentration of refineries in one region has led to severe health and justice impacts for nearby communities. The stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge accounts for approximately 25% of the United States’ petrochemical production, consisting of over 130 plants, refineries, landfills, and factories. The region is disproportionately low income, and is 55% white and 40% black, compared to state averages of 64% and 32%, and national averages of 75% and 12%. Due to the concentration of petrochemical facilities, the region has been nicknamed Cancer Alley. In a region already struggling with the devastating hurricanes that have started to become annual or biannual occurrences, people face some of the worst air pollution in the country. They unfairly suffer the consequences of both the facilities that contribute to climate change and climate change itself.
It may be counterintuitive, but anyone concerned about future hikes in gas prices actually has cause to be concerned about climate change. Gut instinct may lead people to expect climate policy to be a threat to gas prices, but in reality, climate change itself may be the bigger culprit.