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New Congress, new bad idea: Replace fuel tax with carbon tax?

Jan. 15, 2015
Saving the highway system and the world at the same time? A California congressman wants to replace the federal tax on gasoline and diesel with a tax on the carbon emissions tied to the production and use of those fuels. Here's the kicker: The EPA would be doing the math. What could go wrong?
A new U.S. Congress has been duly sworn, so let the mischief begin. First up, permit me to introduce Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat and newly named member of the House transportation committee.

Right after the election last November he introduced HR 5733, a bill that would require the Congressional Budget Office to calculate a carbon score, based on greenhouse gas emissions, for each and every bill or resolution, just like CBO calculates the net cost/benefit of legislation.

(Which begs the question: What’s the carbon score on the hot air that comes out of Congress, and how many trees will we have to plant to offset it?)

The bill, however, never made it out of committee during the lame duck session; Congress, you know, was busy trying to avoid a year-end government shutdown and had to work late to do it.

But Huffman’s ahead of the game now, getting out front with a much simpler version. His Gas Tax Replacement Act would, not surprisingly, replace the gas tax. Huffman calls instead for a carbon tax on the total lifecycle ("well-to-wheel") emissions of gasoline and diesel.

Keep in mind, he’s from Northern California, and to his constituency this might make a great a deal of sense. No less of an authority, for instance, than the North Bay Bohemian praises the bill for fixing the roads and saving the world at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for both. But this scheme has a couple of major problems at its core, one theoretical and a very, very practical one for trucking.

To explain the theory, I now introduce the 14th century logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes, Ockham’s views reflected – like a fine Bordeaux – “an underlying concern for ontological parsimony.” In addition to being a man of God and a man of science, he could turn quite the phrase in academic Latin.

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate,” he once waxed lyrical. Or, in a language that’s not dead yet, “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”

More colloquially, Ockham’s Razor is translated as KISS, or Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Which brings us to the practical problem, and the reason truckers should shudder at this legislation: EPA. If those three little letters don’t make your palms sweat, you’re not paying attention.

If I could name one federal agency that hasn’t the slightest idea of how to KISS, it would be the Environmental Protection Agency. Their regulations make the IRS and the tax code look like Dr. Seuss and The Cat in the Hat.

And, trust me, the trucking industry has enough ongoing business to worry about when it comes to EPA and carbon. To think that the agency that brought us NOx and now GHG standards (much more on Phase II to come this spring) could soon set the formula for diesel tax rates is, well, unthinkable.

Yes, America’s roads and bridges need to be upgraded. Yes, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke. Yes, transportation funding runs out in May. (Again, much more to come on this.)

And maybe, just maybe, a carbon tax could make sense in the long run (I misspent much of my youth in NorCal, if that explains anything) but right now the best solution is the most simple one: Just raise the dadgum gas tax.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention a related rule – one which is typically used to dissect conspiracy theories – and that’s Hanlon's Razor:  “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

Of course, I would argue that stupidity in Congress is the more dangerous. But, hey, we are who we vote for. And for better or worse, the 114th Congress is only getting warmed up.

About the Author

Kevin Jones | Editor

Kevin has served as editor-in-chief of Trailer/Body Builders magazine since 2017—just the third editor in the magazine’s 60 years. He is also editorial director for Endeavor Business Media’s Commercial Vehicle group, which includes FleetOwner, Bulk Transporter, Refrigerated Transporter, American Trucker, and Fleet Maintenance magazines and websites.

Working from Little Rock, Kevin has covered trucking and manufacturing for 15 years. His writing and commentary about the trucking industry and, previously, business and government, has been recognized with numerous state, regional, and national journalism awards.

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