"The numbers are striking given our depressed economy," says de Place. "Usually, fuel consumption paces what the economy's doing." The report credits falling gas prices in 2009—after record highs in the summer 2008—for putting more drivers on the road. However, there was one area where the economy still reigns as lord and master: diesel fuel consumption, which fell 10 percent in 2009. Diesel consumption is closely tied to commercial activity and long-distance trucking, which has tanked across the nation in recent years.
De Place says the trend shows a disconnect between people's ideals and habits: "I suspect most Northwest folks—and people in general—would like to reduce our consumption of dirty fuels, especially in light of the Gulf oil spill," de Place says, "but meanwhile we're on track to increase our gasoline consumption in 2010. This should be a reality check for the public and for policy makers. At the very least, it's a good conversation starter for road trips."
His suggestions for policy improvements? "We need to put a limit on carbon emissions in Washington and in the northwest," de Place says. "The number one source for emissions is transportation fuel. If we want to limit our contribution to climate change, we need to curb our consumption."
De Place adds that oil refineries operating in the northwest should also help pay for the environmental cleanup associated with gasoline use. During the 2009 legislative session, environmental groups introduced a measure that would've increased a tax on petroleum and other hazardous materials from .7 percent to 2 percent, and used the tax money to treat stormwater runoff.
"The state's biggest water pollution problem comes from toxins washing off roads, driveways, and parking lots into our water ways," says Brendon Cechovic, program director for the Washington Conservation Voters, which backed the tax increase. "Almost all of it comes from petroleum. The refineries don't pay a penny towards cleanup." The measure failed after fierce opposition from refineries.