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Voluntary gas tax: The Community of St. Martin embraces the real cost of fossil fuels

The Community of St. Martin—a Minneapolis-based ecumenical worship community—doesn’t spend a lot of time on empty bemoaning. No, this group of 50 or so souls uses that time to walk the talk, taking real steps to live their beliefs in justice, compassion, and peace.

More than one year ago, a small group of St. Martin members focused their reflection and study on climate change and fossil fuels. They recognized that the cost of fossil fuel addiction is a great deal more than the dollar price we pay at the gas station. Actual costs that go unpaid at the pump include the financial and human tolls of air pollution and climate change, the enormous expense of foreign policy and military strategies that ensure an inexpensive, reliable supply of oil, and the monetary cost of maintaining subsidies and tax credits for the oil industry—approximately $4 billion annually.

This thoughtful group theorized that the country’s progress on reducing our fossil fuel dependence would be advanced if the real costs of our dependency were reflected in the actual price we pay. St. Martin’s member Tom Witt recalls saying, “The real cost of what we use has to be in front of us.” As a whole, the group asked themselves, “Why don’t we pay more?”

Through their research, they found an interesting approach out of Indiana: a voluntary gas tax campaign.

Based on this idea, approximately 25 members of the Community of St. Martin committed to pay a voluntary tax of $0.50 to $3.00 for each gallon of gas they bought—on top of what they paid at the pump. They tracked their fuel usage, kept their receipts, and met each quarter to reconcile their gas usage and pay the quarter’s tax. They also used this time to share their reflections on how the tax changed their driving patterns. Ultimately, they chose to send the proceeds of the gas tax to a variety of efforts that reduce our dependency on oil.

Fresh Energy is among the grateful organizational beneficiaries of the tax, along with Transit for Livable Communities, Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, and 350.org. The members also plan to use the funds to purchase bus passes and bicycles. Going forward, these voluntary taxpayers—just like consumers in Europe facing rising gasoline costs—will be prepared to respond by using transit more, combining trips, biking, and buying more fuel-efficient vehicles. Witt says, “Every time I get gas, I’m aware I’m paying more and it affects how I approach my driving. I think about sharing rides and combining trips.”

In a recent article titled “Why Gas is Too Cheap” written by Tom Witt and Bob Hulteen for Sojourners, a national Christian organization committed to faith in action for social justice, St. Martin member Mary Preus offered this reflection: “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.”

Additionally, members wanted to demonstrate the appropriateness of a carbon tax. Community member Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer adds, “We hear all the time that the public would never support a carbon tax. We don’t believe this and feel it is used by politicians as an excuse for inaction. We wanted to embrace a carbon tax as individuals and as a community to model and kick start what our national government should be doing.”

Learn more about organizing a voluntary gas tax campaign for your church or civic group at www.voluntarygastax.org.

The Community of St. Martin—a Minneapolis-based ecumenical worship community—doesn’t spend a lot of time on empty bemoaning. When a small group of members wanted to focus on fighting climate change and reducing the use of fossil fuels, they adopted an interesting approach: a voluntary gas tax.

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