The Common Good
July 2012

Why Gas is Too Cheap

by Bob Hulteen and Tom Witt | July 2012

What happens when a church tries to recognize the real cost of fossil fuels?

CHOOSING TO PAY more for a gallon of gas than the price at the pump sounds a bit crazy—but that is exactly what a couple of dozen members of the Community of St. Martin, a worshipping group of Lutherans, Catholics, Mennonites, and others in Minneapolis, Minnesota, have covenanted for more than a year. It’s one way they’re seeking to show commitment to environmental stewardship.

After committing to a voluntary “tax” rate (from $1 to $3 per gallon, depending on income), each community member keeps track of gas receipts. The Community of St. Martin (CSM) collectively decides in advance how their taxes will be spent each quarter. Every three months, the group gathers to write checks and conduct a lively discussion about changes in their gasoline usage habits. CSM borrowed the idea from a group in Goshen, Indiana, that started a similar campaign 10 years ago.

Why intentionally pay more for gas than it costs? According to CSM members, this is precisely the point: The price of gas in the U.S. doesn’t reflect the actual costs that U.S. society and the global community incur as a result of the country’s dependence on oil. Those costs include fossil fuel’s contributions to air pollution and global warming. Also hidden at the pump are the costs of U.S. strategies to maintain an inexpensive supply of oil, often through political or military interventions in oil-producing regions—not to mention $4 billion a year in tax credits and subsidies to Big Oil.

Sara Nelson-Pallmeyer, the group’s treasurer, says that “everyone is paying a different amount—from $10 to $385 per month. The fun part is that so far we’ve given more than $5,000 to organizations working on alternative transportation solutions and advocating for political change around climate-change issues.” She added that, ironically, “The real heroes of the group are the ones paying the least.”

Members have already contributed to organizations such as Transit for Livable Communities, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, Fresh Energy, and 350.org. In the future, they hope to use some “tax” monies to help members pay for bus passes or subsidize a bicycle purchase.

“The dollar or two extra isn’t much when you think about it,” says CSM member Nils Dybvig. “In Europe, they pay up to $8 for a gallon of gas. Consumers have responded by buying more fuel-efficient vehicles, and, of course, they’ve developed more transportation options than we have.”

One benefit of the group, Dybvig says, is getting to talk about the challenges of driving less with others committed to doing so: “We each try to carpool more, take the bus, bike, or walk when we can.”

Group member Mary Preus says, “If we really believe that God entrusted this wounded Earth to our care, then we need to actively look for ways to be protectors and healers of the planet. The alternative gas tax is just one small step a community of faith can take to send a signal that there are some people out here who are willing to pay more in order to combat climate change.”

With the cost of gas likely to play a role in this fall’s presidential elections, no candidate seems willing to speak the painful truth that eventually gas prices will need to rise even more. As the gas-tax group members encourage others to follow their example, they hope that changes to the political climate will also be a favorable byproduct.

Bob Hulteen is editor of Metro Lutheran in Minneapolis and a contributing writer to Sojourners. Tom Witt, a founding member of the Community of St. Martin, is a musician with Bread for the Journey. To learn more, email gastax@communityofstmartin.org.

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