Blog experts tell us not to write clever titles for our posts as they’re counterproductive in terms of search engine optimization. But who wants to read an essay titled ‘Gas Prices Skyrocket’? Have you filled up lately? You already know how bad it is – like getting mauled by a tiger, even. Or a lion.
The World Price of Crude Oil Is the Most Important Factor in the Price of Gasoline. Over the Last 20 Years, Changes in Crude Oil Prices Have Explained 85 Percent of the Changes in the Price of Gasoline in the U.S.
It’s unclear what to make of a poll that has the majority of Mississippians believing President Obama is a Muslim except to say that there is a great deal of ignorance in the country – and a lot of bigotry. But some surveys are encouraging: according to a Bloomberg National Poll, 66% of the thousand or so asked whether they believe our commander-in-chief is responsible for the escalating cost of gasoline, answered ‘no’. They got it wrong in Mississippi; Obama is a Christian. Regarding the price at the pump, they got it right. No matter how much we want to blame someone, particularly the president if he’s not a member of the political party we favor, it’s a futile game.
In March 2004, when George W. Bush was beginning his bid for reelection, gas prices hit a record high, for the sixth time in his presidency. Examined anecdotally, this makes no sense. Those who hated Bush believed he was in bed with Big Oil, what with the Texas roots and the family wealth tied to crude. He, of all recent past presidents besides his father, should have been able to influence oil prices especially if it would help him stay in office – but he couldn’t. POTUS, regardless of who he/she is, cannot promise low gas prices and deliver, not now and not ever in our lifetime. End of story. But let’s spend a little time together examining why that’s the case. I promise not to bore you.
We’re pigs. (I didn’t promise not to insult you.) Any way you slice and dice the argument over higher gas prices, Americans end up looking like obese people who continue to buy bigger and bigger clothes for themselves rather than exercise more and eat less. But let me back up for a minute.
The price you pay for gasoline at the station is based on several factors. Consider the first reason ‘supply and demand’. OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries: Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Qatar, Libya, United Arab Emirates, Ecuador, Algeria, Nigeria, and Angola) is responsible for supplying the United States with around 45% of its oil. If we, and other countries like India and China – the world’s newest gluttonous consumers of crude – demand more than OPEC is willing to supply at any given time, the price increases. It’s basic economic theory and we are beholden to OPEC’s generosity, or lack thereof, if we continue to need their product. The price for OPEC oil is not always based on greed, however. Turmoil in these countries, especially Libya recently and Iran right now, make for precarious fluctuations in how much crude OPEC honestly believes they can deliver – but let’s be honest. When you look at the list of countries that belong to OPEC, when was the last time you wanted to visit any of them? These are not necessarily countries we admire for their human rights records or the quality of their leaders, yet because we choose to consume about 20 million barrels of oil per day in the United States (we top the list of global consumers), we are beholden to countries with reputations we generally abhor, and often don’t understand. How does that make you feel? When you drive to the grocery store for the second or third time in a day, or fail to carpool anywhere, do you ever think about this stuff? Probably not but you should.
Sarah Palin said famously, “Drill, baby, drill!” This is where the corpulent-person-in-giant-clothing comparison comes into play. We are drilling, a lot. And if we escalate that drilling in places like the Gulf of Mexico and then add new locations, like the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve, and then continue finding new sources of natural gas obtained through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), we just might put more of a dent in those OPEC numbers, but at what price? No one can honestly look at fracking, additional wells, ocean rigs, nuclear power plants, pipelines that continue to weave in and out of our landscape, or the lives of coal miners, then consider the environmental price we pay (too many to list), or the dangers we risk, and still feel good about driving everywhere alone in a car with lousy gas mileage or failing to replace incandescent bulbs with CFLs.
There are all kinds of analogies I’d like to make, some better than others. Forgive me for this one: I was one of those who hated George W. Bush and if I could have blamed him for gas prices, I would’ve. I loathed the man because he took us into an unnecessary war. Those he told to go and fight that war and risk their lives (the death toll for American soldiers in Iraq now stands at 4804) were not the children and spouses of the majority in this country. In other words, most of us were not personally affected by the tragedy of that war. From moment to moment, we don’t feel affected by our dependence on foreign oil either. It’s not as if there isn’t gas at the pump. There is, costly but available. While it’s averaging $3.70 a gallon, we’ll likely sacrifice elsewhere in the family budget but unless gas becomes prohibitively expensive and/or scarce, we’re not really feeling the negative environmental and social aspects of consuming it as we do in America – which is to say, we’re pigs. At any given time, we don’t think we have a dog in the fight, so to speak, so what the hell, keep the lights on! Drive yourself and your daughter to a soccer game in Timbuktu as each other member of the team does the same! The analogy: if there was a draft and my child was forced to fight in Iraq, a war I was vehemently opposed to, I would have moved to Canada while protesting like Cindy Sheehan. I didn’t. (And for the record, I don’t assume anything nor judge the military families who did make the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq.) Regarding energy, if I truly felt something important was at risk, right now, today, I’d change. I’d do something, anything.
The key word is today. Our dependence on foreign oil and increased demand for electricity is a problem of procrastination. I’ll carpool next time. I’ll buy fluorescent light bulbs tomorrow when I’m at the store. It’s also an issue of helplessness. Surely turning off the lights and walking to school isn’t going to put a dent in any of this. To that I’ll quote Margaret Mead for the umpteenth time: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Because when that small group spreads the word – think of the anti-smoking movement, ACT UP, MADD, whomever is responsible for making plastic grocery bags anathema, and countless others – people follow suit. We’re lemmings in ways good and bad.
The battle over Keystone XL should serve to illuminate, not political differences, but what we’re willing to do and sacrifice for the right to drive a vehicle the size of a small bus without a busload of people inside. If we improved our oil refineries and built new ones, that would ease the price of gas – and they’re so pretty to look at – so let’s do that. (Cough, cough.) Does the idea of nuclear power plants make you nervous? It should. What about a new electrical tower built down the street from your house? NIMBY. Exxon Valdez was a long time ago, but the Gulf Oil Spill was yesterday – or have we forgotten?
So what’s the answer? There are several known. Foremost, we must reduce our need for crude oil and the easiest way to do that is by driving less. Send an email and find a way to carpool to the next event. (Yes, petroleum is in almost everything we use daily, but nearly half of a barrel of oil is used in our vehicles.) Then the government must continue to make demands on fuel efficiency. After that, turn off the lights wherever you can. Don’t do half loads of laundry. Unplug your device chargers and shut down your computers at night before bed. Change the $4 filters in your AC and heating vents every six months. Use more fans in the summertime. Easy-peasy, and in terms of carpooling, it’s social. Just as someone who is overweight should cut down rather than cut out (to form good habits), any one of these fuel and energy saving deeds is far better than none – to start.
Look, I’m one of the pigs, desperately trying to change by convincing myself that someone somewhere is risking their life so that I can continue to drive anywhere I want as long as I’m willing to pay the price of a gallon of gas – and beyond that, I’m reminded how much we’re asking of Mother Earth without giving anything in return. I don’t want to be her spoiled child or that boy-man in Shel Silverstein’s disturbing The Giving Tree.
In my lifetime, bigger clothes will probably continue to be an option but for the next generation, eating less and exercising more is the better choice to make – figuratively speaking. In the smaller picture, it’s easier than paying $75 to fill up your car and much less scary than taking on lions and tigers and bears.