Instead, the bulk of new vehicles sold in the US were lightweight pickup trucks, which tend to guzzle gas compared to passenger cars — and the availability of cheap gas played a role. “The big risk for the climate is that low gas prices induce people to buy bigger, less efficient SUVs, and light trucks. We all have short memories,” he says, referencing the $4 gas Americans were dealing with just a few years ago. Even though consumers hang onto their vehicles for an average of 11.5 years, they tend to focus on the short-term savings.
At some fuel stations, there is a sense of giddiness about the situation, including one northern Michigan fuel station making headlines recently for selling gas at $.49 per gallon. But not everyone in the US is thrilled about cheap gas — the economies in gasoline-producing states like Alaska, Texas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Louisiana are especially hard hit. The slumping price of oil has also caused stock market turmoil in recent weeks. And for proponents of clean energy, low gas prices can stymie efforts to reduce carbon footprints.
Not only does cheap gas inspire customers to purchase less fuel-efficient vehicles, it also significantly increases the number of miles driven, boosting carbon emissions. Put simply, people drive more when gas is more affordable. “Everyone thought the US had hit peak driving in 2007. And we were all wrong. US vehicle miles traveled have been going up every month since March of 2014, passing the previous peak,” Samaras says. In fact, the Federal Highway Transportation Department just reported that 2015 was probably a record year.