A gas pump sits in a forest, leaking gas and damaging the area.
Design by Priya Ganji. Buy this photo.

This summer, many University of Michigan students, like myself, made the decision to travel home for the summer. Upon arriving home, we were disappointed when we noticed how expensive it was to drive around our rural hometowns, where public transportation isn’t available. Why does filling our tanks cost a fortune? Do these sky-high prices give us hope for a more sustainable future?

The reasons for these record-high prices are a result of a few matters, including Russia’s attack on Ukraine, China’s COVID-19 lockdowns becoming more relaxed and the continuous demand for gas in the United States. The tragedies taking place in Ukraine have caused the U.S. government to ban all Russian energy imports (oil, coal and natural gas) as a form of pressure to end the war and to lessen tensions with other Western nations. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that passing a bill to cut off energy ties with Russia would also allow the U.S. to explore options to degrade Russia in the global economy even further. And although the United States did not receive as much of these products as other countries, such as many in Europe, our gasoline prices are still taking a blow.

In regards to China opening up, people all around the world want to travel again. More demand for a diminishing supply of oil (fossil fuels take millions of years to form) results in higher prices everywhere. The United States’ oil refineries are becoming less prevalent as they close up shop because of how expensive it is to keep them running. If these refineries aren’t shutting down, then they are reaching maximum capacities for their petroleum products while desperately trying to keep up with America’s demand for gasoline.

As an environmentalist, I couldn’t help but think that there is a bit of a silver lining to the given situation. “Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing — people are probably driving less now. Maybe this is a good thing for the environment,” I thought.

Sadly, it turns out that the result of this issue is not so simple. Closures of United States oil refineries are probably a necessary wake-up call: Petroleum products won’t be around forever. But people aren’t really using their cars less because of skyrocketing prices of gas. Gasoline tends to be more of an inelastic good to the American people, meaning that consumers will buy gas at pretty much any price as long as they are still able to afford it. As usual, it seems as though the U.S. government is not thinking about the environment but the economy. Some states, like Maryland, New York, Georgia and Connecticut, have even resorted to temporarily suspending their gas taxes.

While the lower prices may be great for the residents of these states, I would argue that just the opposite should be put in place. Making the gas taxes higher and pushing gas prices up to a price that many cannot afford could potentially help with carbon emissions and, hopefully, start a wave of change regarding renewable energies. Car companies could take this opportunity to start producing more electric cars, which will actually be less expensive for consumers in the long run, as renewable energies (which could be used to power electric cars) are much less expensive to derive compared to fossil fuels. In fact, renewables are the least expensive energy source and have become 85% cheaper in the last decade. We must — as a society — switch to deriving energy from renewable sources before utilizing electric alternatives or suffer the consequences of our carbon emissions. Admittedly, this plan would likely further inconvenience lower-income communities, but I have no better solution to take advantage of the situation and push for environmental change at this time. 

The rise in gas prices has definitely made people start thinking about alternatives to using fossil fuels. As prices went up, so did the number of Google searches for electric vehicles. In fact, the interest on the Internet seems to be the highest it has ever been. Before using electric products like these, though, we need to start deriving more electricity from renewable sources and improving battery storage efficiency. Marketing for these electric products, and all the news surrounding Elon Musk right now, has probably also contributed to the increased amount of searches.

Regardless of this increased interest, the United States is still in crisis — both with upset drivers and with the future of our planet. The record-high gas prices Americans are faced with right now may be a window of opportunity for a step in the right direction. Maybe with Europe losing a huge supplier of their natural gas and oil, they will start to use more clean energy, invent more efficient technology and motivate the rest of the world to do the same. And although these high prices are not making people drive less right now, they might in the future. I am glad the U.S. decided to stop buying fossil fuels from Russia, and I hope it can serve as a wake-up call for those in power.

Leah Larsen is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at leahlars@umich.edu.