Deepwater drilling rigs sit idle. Fracking plans are scaled back. Enormous new tar sand projects are shelved. Maybe low oil prices aren't so bad for the environment after all. The global price of oil has plummeted 31 percent in just five months, after a four-year period near or above $100 a barrel. Once, the argument went that the lower the price of fossil fuels, the less incentive there would be to develop and use cleaner alternatives like batteries or advanced biofuels.
But at around $75 a barrel, the price is high enough to keep investments flowing into alternatives, while giving energy companies less reason to pursue expensive and risky oil fields. "Low prices keep the dirty stuff in the ground," says Ashok Gupta, director of programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Economists and environmentalists caution that if the price goes too low, consumption could swell and the search for alternatives could stop. Their optimal price range: $60 to $80. But the news isn’t all good: With the national average price of gasoline under $3 per gallon, people are buying more large SUVs.
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