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Even in good times, says a Washington, D.C., environmental group, gas prices take a bigger bite out of the average Montanan's paycheck than they do residents of every other state but one.

When gas prices spike - as they're expected to this summer - it gets considerably worse.

The National Resources Defense Council says the average Montanan will spend more than 10 percent of his or her income on gasoline if prices shoot past $3 a gallon, as they're expected to as the weather warms.

"Drivers in the most vulnerable states will be particularly hard hit in the event of another spike in the price of gasoline, which is one of the economic risks Americans face due to the country's dependence on oil," NRDC officials said as they released their findings Wednesday.

Mississippi, typically home to the lowest per-capita income in the nation, tops the list of most vulnerable states. Montana's second-place ranking is largely due to the long distances between communities, the NRDC says - but Montana also usually ranks in the bottom 20 percent of the country for per-capita income as well. The less money you have to spend, coupled with higher gas prices, obviously equates to a larger percentage of your income going to fill that tank.

Wednesday's news release quotes two women from Missoula nonprofits.

"One of the main concerns we hear from our clients is how difficult it is to afford the gasoline necessary for them to get to their job," said Naomi Thornton, director of the Futures Teen Parent program at Women's Opportunity Resource Development.

Peggy Grimes, executive director of the Montana Food Bank Network, noted that higher gas prices translate into higher food costs, and greater delivery expenses.

"That affects our ability to provide food for those Montanans who need it most," she said.

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The NRDC uses the report to recommend:

  • Passing comprehensive climate and energy legislation to "limit carbon dioxide emissions, help break the country's oil addiction, and help create millions of clean energy jobs at home."
  • Reforming federal transportation policy to "support smart, transit-oriented development, assist states and regions in saving oil, and provide ample funding for energy-efficient transportation alternatives, including rail and bus lines, bike paths, sidewalks and other alternatives to driving."

Both Thornton and Grimes said they back those ideas.

"Our ongoing oil addiction is draining our wallets and our economy, and rising gas prices will only add to this burden," Deron Lovaas, transportation expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says. "That's why we need to move forward with clean energy and climate solutions that will not only strengthen our national security and our environment, but will also help revitalize our economy."

The vulnerability rankings from 2009 were virtually identical to the price-spike predictions - the percentages were just smaller as gas prices fell during the recession. Mississippi was still No. 1, with residents there spending 6.22 percent of their income on gasoline, and Montana ranked second at 5.88 percent. There was a change at the bottom of the list, where Connecticut ranked as the least vulnerable state when prices were lower. Folks there spent just 2.52 percent of their income on gasoline in '09.

NRDC says it calculated the percentages thusly: The amount of motor gasoline consumed in each state is multiplied by the average price in 2009 to produce the total amount spent in each state on gasoline. This figure is then divided by the total number of licensed drivers to produce the amount spent on gasoline, including taxes, per driver. Finally, this number is divided by per capita income and multiplied by 100 to produce the average percent of drivers' income spent on gasoline.

For the hypothetical price-spike scenario, the average price in 2009 was replaced with the price in July 2008, when gasoline prices peaked.

Founded in 1970, the purpose of the Natural Resources Defense Council, according to its Web site, is "to safeguard the Earth, its people, its plants and animals and the natural systems on which all life depends." Several well-known business people, attorneys and entertainers sit on its board of directors; probably the most-recognizable staff member is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a senior lawyer for the NRDC.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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