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Scary

I had a worrisome experience this afternoon.

My tank was a little lower than I'd realized. I'd been trying to be extra frugal about using my car, trying to eke out the tank I had awaiting post-Hurricane Ike replenishment, but it didn't last as long as I'd hoped. I went out to fill up my tank to prepare for the drive in to work tomorrow.

Somehow, I didn't realize that the shortfall had become quite so urgent. All up and down the road, gas stations had blank signs, indicating that they were out of gas.

I went to another main thoroughfare, increasingly anxious because my tank usually gets about 275 miles, and I was at 260, the red Empty line looming. I knew from being in the car with my husband the other day that we'd seen a huge line of cars at a gas station ... now I knew why: it was the only place in our area left with any gas.

I drove there, hoping they'd still have some. The Chevron across the street didn't have any. I stacked into the line of cars, hoping the pumps wouldn't run out, hoping I wouldn't run out before I got to the station.

Seriously. It took me an hour to get gas, including the line. When I got to the pump, all but a few of the selections had "Out" signs taped over them.

I filled up. I found out that this is happening all over Georgia.

Refilled, I went straight home, and ate a simple meal, all thoughts of going out forgotten so that I wouldn't have to burn my tank.

It felt disturbingly Mad Max all of a sudden this afternoon. The very sobering reality of "what if it were gone?" hit as fumes trailed out of the exhaust pipes of car after car in the line ahead of me.

Our infrastructure is a very fragile thing, folks. And I have to wonder why the heck I'm even experiencing this, and why I was even able to purchase a gasoline-powered car at this point in history (well, close to three years ago, but still). While in line, I thought of the Seventies, and the gas rationing. Why are we still worrying about this? Why didn't we learn and change our ways after the last gas crisis?

We need to stop the "drill, drill, drill" chant and fix the core problem once and for all. Cheap, renewable energy needs to happen now. There's plenty of research that's been done on all kinds of materials -- algae, kudzu, trash, and more -- we can fix it. And we need to quit procrastinating and leaving it for the next generation the way previous ones have left it for us to deal with. We need to take responsibility.

Comments

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
goodjoan
Sep. 22nd, 2008 05:54 pm (UTC)
I did run out the other day, thinking I could eek out just one more quick side trip before heading back for gas, only to find NO GAS. When i got gas, I didn't fill up, thinking in a few days the post Ike thing would be over and the price would be lower. Today the light came on again and the nearest 3 stations were OUT of gas. Luckily, at the end of the school day, Kroger had some so I hopped in line and waited. I pumped 40 dollars worth, about 10 gallons and drove straight home!

It isn't this bad elsewhere in the country (Houston has gas!) so maybe it'll fix itself once the supply gets back to normal.

I do think we'll see a lot more people buying more efficient cars in the short term!
catarzyna
Sep. 22nd, 2008 08:59 pm (UTC)
We need to stop the "drill, drill, drill" chant and fix the core problem once and for all. Cheap, renewable energy needs to happen now. There's plenty of research that's been done on all kinds of materials -- algae, kudzu, trash, and more -- we can fix it. And we need to quit procrastinating and leaving it for the next generation the way previous ones have left it for us to deal with. We need to take responsibility.

I totally agree. Our oil corps, certain gov't officials, etc. basically have been more concerned with their take rather than the long run global effects of their actions. I have to do a paper for my ethics class and I might choose the current energy crisis. You're lucky tonight I don't have much 'gas' left in my human engine to stay on my soapbox for long. ;-)
quandry
Sep. 22nd, 2008 10:07 pm (UTC)
I know that you really feel strongly about price "gouging" but... if gas stations were allowed to charge higher prices without fear of legal action/fines, you would find that the whole city wouldn't suddenly run out of gas.

You had a localized gas panic in ATL today. The panic events are largely psychological and when station owners are allowed to raise prices immediately in response, they are controlled. People look at the high price, say 'whoa!' and some of them decide not to buy that day. Or they decide to buy a little bit... and at least they have the *option* to buy a little bit rather than being faced with a complete outage. (And you will find that when prices go up and the outages do not happen, neither do the panics. People panic because they think there will be no more, and they begin to feel desperate. If there's plenty but it's pricey, they manage their consumption instead.)

Once demand slows, the prices fall again within a day or two. It's quite reasonable for a station to charge five or six bucks in a situation like that. (And frankly, five or six bucks is the *normal* price in many areas. http://money.cnn.com/pf/features/lists/global_gasprices/ )

If you want gas to go away, you should support very high prices. Very high gas prices make other sources of energy cheaper in comparison. But remember that high energy prices have an extremely destructive effect on economies as a whole, so be careful...

Cheap renewable energy isn't as easy as everyone claims. Not only do you need to be able to produce energy on a massive scale, you need an infrastructure to handle it. Changing over an infrastructure doesn't happen overnight. The internet is one of the fastest infrastructures to ever be built, and that has taken a solid 40 years. I hate to say it, but gas is here to stay for the short and medium-term futures. I am all for investigating other options, but no politician is going to be able to wave a magic wand and make it happen in the next 10 or even 20 years. Back when I worked in an industry that used enormous amounts of energy (aluminum) everyone just sort of smiled and held their tongues around the greenies. It's not that we disagree with the idea of changing our sources of energy - trust me, anyone building a smelter is quite willing to use energy from *anyone* and *any* source, so long as the quantity and the price is right. But, there's the rub. The green solutions are not ready for prime time. Nor does it appear that they will be. Solar is never going to power an aluminum smelter. Neither is wind. The good hydro and geo spots have mostly been taken. Everyone screams for "cheap, renewable energy" as if someone can just pull it right out of their butt. I find that anyone with a serious engineering background in the field tends to advocate for entirely different techonolgies like clean coal. Trust me on this, if "cheap, renewable energy" existed or was remotely close to existing, you would not need politicians to push it. Businesmen would be clamoring for it, and it *would* happen. The market is hungry for it, it just doesn't exist yet.
pointedview
Sep. 23rd, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC)
Okay, here's my reasoning as to why I believe of why gas gouging is a bad idea. Call it the "Trickle Up," theory, if you'd like. :)

David and I are not wealthy, but we have no children, and thus, we have a bit more disposable income than some of our peers. It wouldn't be pleasant, but we could still afford gas if it went up to say, $7 a gallon.

That's us. Now take Inesse, a lady who handles sanitation duties at my company. She speaks passable, but heavily-accented English, and has several children. Inesse does not make as much as I do, and she has dependents. I feel reasonably confident in saying that $7 a gallon for gas would not be financially possible for Inesse.

Now imagine all the workers like Inesse across Georgia and South Carolina -- the working poor. If gouging were to take place as you suggest, the middle class and upper class could take the hit, but those tiers would be suffering, too, because the layer of workers below them wouldn't be able to afford gas to get to work, or if they opted for gas, maybe the rent payment is late. Maybe people start to get evicted for non-payment, and that trickles up to the landlord who now has units that aren't generating revenue. Obviously, my scenario involves a more extended gas shortage than what we are experiencing, but for people living paycheck to paycheck, the destabilization could happen rapidly.

Atlanta doesn't move without gas. It is a commuter city that is completely dependent on private vehicles -- MARTA covers an exceedingly limited territory. I literally cannot get to my workplace with it. If workers from all economic strata can't get to work, things grind to a halt. I'm all for free market competition, but gas is a necessity for the economic backbone: it's not like buying a no-name shirt vs. a name brand.

I don't know about others, but I know that both Joan and I (see above) were waiting for as long as possible to get gas -- we weren't panicking. We were trying to hold out. In the line tonight at the BP, I heard a young mother say that she was on empty. So ... anecdotal evidence, granted, but the folks I've actually heard haven't been like, "Oh, I gotta get mine!" when they're at half a tank.

Furthermore, I remember the price gouging that did happen during Katrina before the governor cracked down. You still saw cars stacked several lines deep for gas. There, I saw panic. This time, less so ... maybe 'cause times are harder financially now, and people are going as long as they can?

I do agree with your point that high gas prices over a longer stretch (not an anomaly, like this) encourage people to change their behavior. We've seen the media full of tips and tricks to save gasoline.

Of course you need an infrastructure to handle a change in energy. However, there have been designs for more fuel-efficient engines for ages now. Part of the problem is that industries haven't been willing to bite the bullet and retool their production facilities ... they're not willing to take the economic hit in the short term, so they pass it on down the line. It's not exactly news that fossil fuels are a limited resource.

As for solar power, there have been advances recently. I'm not saying they'll power a smelter, but new tech can make them cheaper to produce. If more people in neighborhoods use solar power, heck, businesses, too, that's more power from traditional sources that's conserved for the really heavy duty tasks. Selective application could have an effect.

I now use reusable bags for my groceries, and gave some to my co-workers, too (I knew they'd like it - I don't impose my views on others via presents ... I just knew I'd have a receptive audience). They were thrilled. It's a tiny thing, but on a large scale, that's less plastic being produced for disposables. I'm not a granola head, but small, pragmatic actions on a large scale can help. Not getting a new cell phone when your current one works just fine despite the freebie provided by a "New every two" contract, for example.


pointedview
Sep. 23rd, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC)
Part 2
... comment continued 'cause my previous one was too long. :)

And I'm sorry, but with all the news posts I've read about research into alternative fuels, with all the home-grown solutions people are finding, like the guy right here in Georgia who converted his Chevy S-10 to electric, or the band that powered their tour bus with waste cooking oil from restaurants ... with people doing things like this on an individual basis, how much cheaper would it be for some enterprising soul with capital to create easy-install retrofit kits for the mass market?

When the market has demanded it, not just now, but in times past (I remember the surge of Japan's compact car sales here in the US), suddenly, fuel-efficient cars have been available. Europe has had them for years. Even if it takes time to find a cost-effective renewable source, the technology exists right now to conserve what we've got. Also, since it's in vogue now, we're seeing much more research happening with alternative fuel sources. I believe that there's something other than gasoline out there that can power our society, and that if the current economic pressure continues, we'll find it sooner rather than later because we're finally adequately motivated.
mumpish
Sep. 24th, 2008 01:41 pm (UTC)
I've been holding my tongue since we're going out Sunday, but here's a couple of thoughts ...

Let's be careful about terms like 'gouging.' I get the knee-jerk reaction; even if the demand goes up, stations didn't pay higher prices for the fuel in their tanks at that moment, so how dare they? But do you apply that standard fairly? Do you sell stocks that you own at lower than market price because, hey, you bought them low? When you sell your house, are you going to forgo everything but inflation or do you intend to pocket as much as possible from the sale?

Second, market forces play an important role in supply distribution, as Deena noted. Taking your Inesse example again, I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that Inesse can't do like you or I can do if we're running low on gas and telecommute. Her livelihood depends on the availability of gas. The overall reduction in supply to Atlanta under normal levels over the past two weeks is, according to the only news source I've seen that bothered to report it, less than 5%. The shortage is essentially entirely the result of people filling up every available tank they have instead of continuing to buy gas at normal rates.

So, what helps Inesse more? A gas station that held prices low, and immediately sells out, or a station that 'gouges' and as a consequence still has gas to sell to people who decide they need it? Calling the station that 'gouges' greedy misses the point that the station that didn't failed to help itself or Inesse.

The solution isn't black and white. It's not stopping 'drill, drill, drill' any more than it is ignoring alternative sources. The solution to our energy problem includes drilling, drilling, drilling, and it includes trying to catch up after squandering forty years of engineering progress on the best clean source of energy currently capable of delivering the scale we need: nuclear. If we had nuclear, we'd have the clean energy we need to produce hydrogen efficiently and power current internal combustion engines with carbon-free fuel until the price of fuel cells comes down. We should look at wind and solar where it's feasible and we should definitely look into the bio-research being done using bacteria to create fuel out of non-food biologicals, because converting the world's corn to fuel isn't a smart solution either, as is quickly becoming clear as food prices spike worldwide.

If we're interested in helping Inesse, alternative energy sources aren’t going to help her at all before her children are out of college. To help Inesse, we need a national standard for fuel formulations so that every tinpot municipality that can scrape together a town council can't demand its own boutique blend. We need policies integrated with those formulation rules so that population-dense areas aren’t punished with artificial shortages in situations like this (that’s the other thing going on in Atlanta right now; we’re getting smacked because we have to have an EPA-mandated special formulation. There’s plenty of gas in Calhoun for $3.60 a gallon right now.) We need to come to terms with the fact that oil is going to be the lion’s share of our energy solution for the foreseeable future, and we need to start drilling for it in accessible international waters before Russia, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela, which have no such quaint notions, do it first. We need more refineries. We need to agree that clean coal and shale-oil are ‘alternative’ fuels as well. If we don’t do those things, we’re not serious about helping Inesse, and if we’re not serious about helping Inesse then there’s very little point in accusing gas stations of ‘gouging.’

quandry
Sep. 24th, 2008 02:10 pm (UTC)
You're forgetting one very important thing about those gas station prices. A gas station owner has a tank to fill, just like you. He's got to make enough money off of his tank in order to buy more gas to fill it, or he won't have anything to sell next week.

Here's the thing. The gas price you pay is the price that the station owner thinks he will have to pay to fill his tank next week. He's got to do his best to forecast the price. Is the price hike to to his greed... or his anxiety about future prices?

Here's the other thing. Most gas station owners only break even on their gas. The gas is just there as a scheme to lure you into the convenience store, which is the real moneymaker. The funny thing about high gas prices is that they also hurt the gas station owner, because after you've forked out a ton of money for gas, you aren't buying as much beef jerky, bottled water and lotto tickets.

So.... with these facts about how gas stations work, I'm not exactly sure that it's pure naked greed that is hurting Inesse... In fact, if Inesse is an employee at a gas station, she might be looking at losing her job if her employer needs to cut back.

I realize that you bring Inesse up in complete good faith and hoping to bring more information to the discussion. But it's not that I've never considered people like her. In fact, I'm already taking a pay cut this year, because my pay is directly proportional to other people's discretionary spending. On top of that, I'm dealing with higher prices. A few of your coworkers are affected by gas price hikes, but all of mine are. When a server, cocktail or bartender comes into work and has a bad night, they can be underwater for the day - they've spent more money on gas coming in to work than they made at work. Believe me, I do not make these arguments in ignorance of what the effects are for people who don't make much money. That being said, the people at my restaurant are simply doing things like driving less, cutting back other expenses, trying to pick up more shifts, and in a couple of cases, switching to work at restaurants closer to their apartments.

There's no one solution that works for everyone, but somehow most people muddle through. J and I aren't saying that the price hikes aren't a problem and don't hurt people - we're just saying that the alternative of price controls is a cure that's worse than the disease.
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