If you are too young to have waited in line for gasoline in the 1970's, if you don't remember odd/even gas rationing, signs reading "NO GAS"; if you don't remember when the price of gasoline went from thirty-nine cents a gallon to a dollar practically overnight, you can perhaps be forgiven for feeling that gasoline is an endless resource and that life without it is unthinkable.
But if you are old enough to remember gas lines, even if you were too young to have to actually wait in one, you have no excuse for griping about the price of gas as you spend close to a hundred dollars to fill up your SUV.
We've had blips of high prices before. We usually see price spikes when there is trouble of any kind in the Middle East. We didn't see them so much after last summer's BP oil spill, largely because there was so much outrage at BP that they never would have gotten away with it. But the combination of instability among oil-producing nations, opportunistic oil companies, diminishing supplies of the kind of light sweet crude that's most easily refined, and markets that are more fickle than a prom queen, mean that we have to get it through our spoiled, lunkheaded skulls that the era of cheap oil is over. In fact, the era of even expensive oil is coming to an end -- and if it doesn't it will mean ruin for all of us.
For one brief shining moment, it seemed that the message had gotten through. Suddenly we had a huge selection of smaller cars from which to choose. Suddenly we had hybrids and electric cars and Smart Cars and Mini Coopers to go with the Civics and Corollas and Accents. It even seems as though Ford may have a winner in the Fiesta. And yet the minute the price started to go down, people started buying and leasing SUVs again. I guess it's hard to give up being a bully on the road once you've had a chance to do so.
But there aren't charging stations for the Nissan Leaf yet, and it's about $2000 to put an outlet at your house to charge it up. Most electric cars can still go only about 40 miles on a charge. But a good small car with a twelve-gallon fuel tank that gets a combined city/highway 30mpg will cost you about $48 to fill up at $4/gallon, assuming you don't wait till the little red needle is point to "E", and it'll take you about 360 miles for that $48. Insist on even a small SUV that gets 20mpg, like a Nissan Rogue with a 16 gallon tank, and you'll go forty miles less and pay $64 to fill it up. Insist on a Ford Expedition with combined city/highway 16 mpg and a 33.5 gallon tank, and when gas is $4, it will cost you a whopping $134 to fill it up, but you will go over 500 miles on a tank. Still -- that's a lot of money to pump into a vehicle at least once a week.
It's all part of the reality that the world in which we've been living, one with cheap gas and cheap food and cheap airfares is gone, and gone for good. We've been propping up dictators in the Middle East for a half-century to gain access to oil -- and now we're seeing the results, just as we did when the Shah of Iran was toppled. In 2008 John McCain and Sarah Palin ran for president on a platform of "Drill, baby, drill" -- so that no piece of land can ever be spared to slake our addiction to the stuff. Even if you want to argue that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve, or off the coast of Florida, or wherever else Republican want to allow drilling so their friends in the petroleum industry can get even richer, is this really where we want to put our energies and our resources? Do you really think that being able to tailgate people like me on the Garden State Parkway is worth $134 a week and all the waters of all our coasts being in the same condition as the Gulf of Mexico is off the Louisiana coast after the folly of BP?
We have been so accustomed to what we perceive at any given moment as "cheap gas" (which now seems to be anything under $3/gallon) that the minute it goes above that, people start clamoring for someone to "do something about it", and that something usually seems to be tapping the strategic petroleum reserve:
White House Chief of Staff William Daley said today the Obama administration was considering tapping into the U.S. strategic oil reserve as a way to help ease soaring oil prices.
Speaking on NBC television's "Meet the Press," Daley said: "We are looking at the options. The issue of the reserves is one we are considering. It is something that only is done -- and has been done -- in very rare occasions. There's a bunch of factors that have to be looked at. And it is just not the price."
"All matters have to be on the table when you see the difficulty coming out of this economic crisis we're in and the fragility," Daley added.
What Mr. Daley doesn't realize is that if petroleum traders and speculators and oil company executives have decided that they WILL have one-party Republican government after the 2012 election, it doesn't matter if they release EVERYTHING from the strategic petroleum reserve so that spoiled suburbanites can drive an SUV to the A&P.
So what's to be done? Unfortunately, very little in the short run. More investment in public transit, increased routes for buses and trains, bicycle paths, flexible work hours, more telecommuting, corporate schedules that make car-pooling viable, solar and wind power -- all these are things that in the long run can help us wean ourselves off oil. The problem is that those who own our government don't WANT to wean us off of oil, because there is just too much money in it.