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Costs Of Oil: Cheaper Gas, Worse Air Quality?

Utah State University Old Main Webcam
Inversions vary from year to year depending on winter conditions: Cache Valley inversion in Jan. 2013

As gasoline prices dipped below the two dollar mark and stayed there, it got us wondering: Do people drive more when gas is cheap? And in turn, could these lower prices be contributing to our air quality woes?

Along with powdery snow and red rocks, in recent years Utah has also become known for thick valley inversions in the winter months. Cars are a big contributor to those inversions and in Cache Valley less than one tenth of vehicles in the area emit 25 to 50 percent of all the chemicals contributed by cars that lead to unhealthy inversions. 

There’s not a definitive correlation between cheap gasoline and air quality, simply because yearly winter weather plays such an important part in this equation.

“Our winter has been very good this year," said Utah Division of Air Quality's Bo Call about this year's inversions. "Historically, January and February have been our toughest months of the year. This year, our values haven’t exceeded the standard yet."

Conditions have to be right for an inversion to occur, but Call said this winter we haven't’ had the three primary contributors needed to make them happen.

“We need to have pollutants in the air, and then we generally need to have snow on the ground and then we need to have inversions with cold temperatures,” Call said. “Frankly, we haven’t had that much snow on the ground and it hasn’t been that cold.” 

Another thing to untangle from the air quality question is whether lower gasoline prices change peoples’ driving behaviors. Do people drive more when its cheaper to fill the tank? 

Randy Martin is an associate research professor from the College of Engineering at Utah State University. He said lower prices don’t necessarily lead to more driving.

“I think people are going to stick with their old habits," Martin said. "The reason I say that is because when gas prices climbed, you didn’t see a lot of people not driving. We just complained about it a lot more with the higher prices."

While driving behaviors might not be changing, Call said the vehicles that consumers are taking to the pumps are. 

“One of the major contributors to air pollution is vehicles; it’s been more than half the pollution out there. That number is going down and the reason it’s going down is people are buying new cars, and new cars pollute a lot less,” Call said.

The hope is that the this trend continues as people take the money they are saving at the pump and invest it into newer more efficient vehicles. That way, in the long term, when winters are heavy and the inversion sets in, driving will be a smaller contributor to poor air quality.

“I think maybe as the economy grows, which it should if people are spending more money on things other than survival and gasoline, that perhaps they will start thinking about alternative ways to do things,” Martin said. “They can look to making investment in other energies that are less polluting in the long run, and have the freedom to do that with the extra money in the economy.”

“If lower gas prices encourage people to buy a new car because they have some more expendable money, then really that’s going to help the situation,” Call said. 

Whether this year's low prices have an effect on air quality and which cars people take to the pump may not be known for years.