Friday, March 21, 2008

Let it Bleed

I’m glad gas prices are going up. I hope they reach $10 a gallon before Bush leaves office and we have a President who isn’t bought and paid for by Big Oil.

I know what that means: A bloodletting. The economy will collapse and millions of people will be out of work. It will make the Great Depression look like a stock market correction. Good. We have it coming.

We have it coming because people commute to white collar jobs in a one ton pickup trucks. Kids are dropped off for school in Hummers. Nobody takes the bus and few people actually carpool. To be fair, most cities don’t provide adequate public transportation. Urban sprawl forces millions of people living in urban areas to commute 10 or more miles to a job in a suburban development where busses don’t run. Things like that simply didn’t matter, gas was cheap and so were used cars. Nobody had to worry about the logistics of the daily commute.

Well now they do. Since Bush has taken office the cost of a gallon of gas has nearly tripled. His apologists will tell you that’s because of a number of economic factors but somehow domestic oil companies have enjoyed record profits. Net Profits.

Nevertheless, we still have it coming. It was only a matter of time before another, stupider version of Warren G. Harding was planted in the White House by corporate interests. Oil Companies are going to screw us as hard as they can for as long as they can, but it takes two to tango. We’re the ones who grabbed our ankles and let them do it.

There was a gas crunch in the 70s. Not only was oil expensive, it was also hard to find. OPEC cut our supply and we were crippled. That’s when Honda and Toyota proliferated the US market with compact cars. Fuel efficient vehicles gained a foothold in the US and, as Americans got creative with their commuting habits, oil prices came back down.

And they stayed down. They stayed down so long that Americans were able to stop buying those puny “rice burners” and start buying big cars again. By the end of the 1980s truck sales started to rise and by 2000 the SUV became the most common vehicle on the highway. Fuel efficiency was a joke. People were buying horsepower and getting 12 miles per gallon was fine and dandy because the average American felt safe driving a massive hunk of steel down the road. It didn’t matter if crash test surveys demonstrated that larger vehicles were less safe in a crash, Fanny F-150 liked riding high and stretching out.

Of course, the volatility of the oil market never went away. OPEC tried to manipulate supplies when Clinton and George H. W. Bush were in office but they were able to leverage diplomacy to keep supplies up and costs down. The result is that Americans didn’t pay attention to the writing on the wall. We kept on trucking oblivious to what was on the horizon.

Oil is a finite resource. There were only so many prehistoric bogs that got converted into crude and we’ve been burning it up at an exponential rate. Even if it’s cheap, the supply is limited so it makes sense to conserve it and aggressively look for renewable sources of combustible fuel. That’s why coal is a lousy answer. No matter how many mountains they level or rivers they foul Big Coal companies won’t find enough coal underground to last. Fossil fuels take hundreds of millions of years to create but only second to burn. We need to find something else. This latest oil crisis is proof of that.

Gas is well on it way to four bucks a gallon and people are still cruising around in hulking trucks and midsize sedans with big engines. They aren’t cruising as much, but they aren’t looking for alternatives either. It would seem that our squeal point is somewhere closer to the five dollar mark but before it gets there we’ll have a new Administration in Washington and prices will fall. The question is whether Americans will take the lesson they’ve learned to heart and strive to find a better way or if they’ll go right back to the SUV.

I don't think we'll learn and that's why I hope those prices keep rising.

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