SALT LAKE CITY — Nothing changes people’s focus like a crisis.

Mark Sanford tried to challenge Donald Trump within the Republican Party on a platform of fiscal responsibility. He had to drop out because people who peddle gloom in a roaring economy are pushed aside by the rest of us who are trying to buy things online.

But if the economy were to go south, you might get poked in the eye from all the fingers that would shoot out, trying to cast blame. An annual budget deficit of more than $1 trillion and a national debt of more than $23 trillion might even supplant impeachment as the most important topic in Washington.

The same type of refocus would take place if conventional gas prices were to soar to, say, $5 a gallon or more nationwide, and to stay that way a while.

A decade ago, important people told me $4 gas would be the equivalent of Pearl Harbor or the first Soviet rocket into space in terms of uniting people behind a cause. People would rally behind the need to extract more fuel, and the push would be to encourage more alternative-fuel vehicles.

The reason they talked this way was because prices had recently spiked. That happened again four years ago, leading two Republican state lawmakers in Michigan to demand an investigation. Remember that? I thought so.

All the talk and bluster faded like yesterday’s weather as prices stabilized again.

We still don’t have $4 gas, at least not in Utah. You can find it around San Francisco without looking too hard, but people there seem to take it in stride. 

We also still don’t have a lot of alternative-fuel vehicles on the road.

The Utah Foundation just published a report titled, “Driving toward a cleaner future.” Among its findings were that electric vehicles have a market share in Utah of only 1.6%. That’s still higher than the median for all states, but the market share is creeping upward at an agonizingly slow pace. 

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The normal response to this would be a shrug. The marketplace should decide whether to shift to alternative fuels, right? With the United States now among the top energy producing nations of the world, and with gas relatively cheap — today’s $2.63 a gallon is the equivalent of 33 cents in 1965 dollars — what’s the big deal?

That may be a good answer for people who live somewhere that doesn’t suffer regularly from the type of inversion-induced smog that often chokes the air along the Wasatch Front. This may have been a mild fall so far, but Utah’s northern valleys already have seen several hazy days. Utahns tend to list air quality among their top concerns.

So it’s valuable to look at a couple of parts of this report. One concerns the reasons why people don’t buy electric cars.

The report says top concerns are that the cars would run out of power too quickly and that it’s too hard to find a place to recharge. Add to that the purchase price, which averages about $5,400 more than nonelectric cars.

The second part worth noting concerns who does the most polluting. The report found that “large fleet vehicles account for one-third to one-half of Utah’s vehicle emissions, even though they account for only 3% of the vehicle miles traveled.”

The first problem is hard to solve. Norway gets a lot of credit for using subsidies to spur electric car purchases, which made up 31% of the market there in 2018. By 2030, the Norwegian government plans to outlaw gasoline cars entirely.

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But Norway’s subsidies and incentives are unsustainable, mainly because they are funded by the nation’s oil industry, which is shrinking as the use of electric cars grows.

The second point ought to direct Utah’s efforts. Perhaps the most meaningful incentives should focus on companies with large fleet vehicles. That means continuing credits that are due to expire in 2020.

The report says more charging stations are coming to the state. My guess is that will have only a small impact on sales.

Absent a consistent oil crisis — something no one should wish for because it would affect the entire economy, triggering that barrage of finger pointing — the market isn’t likely to make any dramatic shifts on its own.

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