Saturday, April 19, 2008

How About Those Gasoline Prices?

Yesterday it cost me a whopping $40 to fill up the tank of my 2003 Buick Century. But as much as I griped about the $3.60 per gallon price I paid, I found some solace today when I noticed that the price per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline at the same Amoco station was now up to $3.65 per gallon. Super unleaded gasoline here on Long Island is on the cusp of $4.00 per gallon, which should happen any day now, and regular unleaded will likely cross that line soon afterwards. In a News 12 report on gasoline prices on Long Island, gas station owners fret that they do not have enough fours to put up on their price signs.

While gasoline prices have increased noticeably over the last several years, and have long since exceeded the $2.00 per gallon plateau, for the most part I was not affected by it. My wife and I pretty much drive local, to the train station, the supermarket, the mall, and so forth. But now the price per gallon has risen to a point that even if one fills their tank up just twice per month, it still takes a chunk out of the family budget. And if my wallet is taking a hit now, I can only imagine how drivers with SUVs and minivans are suffering.

Because those of us who live in suburban areas depend on our cars, we don't really have much choice but to put up with it. As
this blurb from the Department of Energy web site acknowledges, our options are rather limited:

Consumers have very little power as individuals but, if enough consumers give the same “market signal,” they can impact prices. First, when consumers buy gasoline at service stations in their areas with the lowest price, they take market share away from higher-priced stations; these stations may then eventually reduce their prices to be more competitive. The second way consumers impact the market is by reducing gasoline consumption. If enough people reduce driving or switch to more energy-efficient vehicles, gasoline demand would decline and prices would be dampened.

I am doing what I can to reduce my own gasoline consumption. I am fortunate enough in that my local supermarket is within walking distance, and I have a hand cart that can hold a decent amount of groceries in it. This morning, rather than drive the several miles to my daughter's doctor's office to pick up a copy of her vaccination record for her kindergarten enrollment, I rode my bicycle there. Tomorrow morning, I plan to ride my bicycle the several miles into Hicksville to return some videos to BlockBuster.

But in spite of my best efforts, I don't think that I can stretch a full tank of gas for much more than two weeks. And no matter how conscientious I try to be, circumstances can arise to thwart my intentions. For example, a couple of nights ago my mom called complaining that she was itching violently, probably as a result of an allergic reaction, and asked me to pick up some Benadryl for her. It was after nine o'clock on a school night, and my wife was at work, so I had to drive my children to my mom's place before driving to Walgreens in Hicksville to pick up the Benadryl. And I realize that as idealistic as I try to be about reducing my fuel consumption to such a degree, it will have absolutely no impact whatsoever. It might make a minor difference if everybody could do the same thing. But I recognize that for a lot of people in this country, it is not easy to do. People who live in rural areas can't be expected to ride bicycles five or ten miles each way when they run errands into town. Neither can persons with physical disabilities that make it impossible to exert themselves in such ways.

So, the sad fact of the matter is that there is not a hell of a lot we can do about the rise in the price of gasoline. And then there is the sober realization that it will get much worse. From the web site
Life After the Oil Crash comes these dire prognostications:

Oil is increasingly plentiful on the upslope of the bell curve, increasingly scarce and expensive on the down slope. The peak of the curve coincides with the point at which the endowment of oil has been 50 percent depleted. Once the peak is passed, oil production begins to go down while cost begins to go up.

In practical and considerably oversimplified terms, this means that if 2005 was the year of global Peak Oil, worldwide oil production in the year 2030 will be the same as it was in 1980. However, the world’s population in 2030 will be both much larger (approximately twice) and much more industrialized (oil-dependent) than it was in 1980. Consequently, worldwide demand for oil will outpace worldwide production of oil by a significant margin.


The issue is not one of "running out" so much as it is not having enough to keep our economy running. In this regard, the ramifications of Peak Oil for our civilization are similar to the ramifications of dehydration for the human body. The human body is 70 percent water. The body of a 200 pound man thus holds 140 pounds of water. Because water is so crucial to everything the human body does, the man doesn't need to lose all 140 pounds of water weight before collapsing due to dehydration. A loss of as little as 10-15 pounds of water may be enough to kill him.

In a similar sense, an oil based economy such as ours doesn't need to deplete its entire reserve of oil before it begins to collapse. A shortfall between demand and supply as little as 10 to 15 percent is enough to wholly shatter an oil-dependent economy and reduce its citizenry to poverty.

I am a generally optimistic person, but we could be in for some rough times ahead folks.

16 comments:

tina FCD said...

It cost us 70.00 or more to fill our tank on our Dodge truck. It's getting pretty crazy. We don't go out much anyway so we don't have to worry about using a lot of our gas.

Anonymous said...

Oh, boo hoo. After being warned by green people for decades that your suburban lifestyle is unsustainable, you've been hit with the first economic intimation that they may be right, and you're already whining. Cry me a freaking river. Maybe if most Americans hadn't been so incredibly shortsighted in every conceivable way, trading any possible future benefit for temporary convenience, we wouldn't be in this mess.

Okay, that was out of line. I apologize. But seriously: it's 30 years since the notion of peak oil became common wisdom within the oil industry and 25 years (or thereabouts) since ecologists started telling us to conserve Or Else. Anyone who thought, in 2000, that the U.S. suburban lifestyle was going to keep going indefinitely was... well, stupid.

Be that as it may, there is some good news. The "Life After The Oil Crash" site you linked to is overly pessimistic.

First off, solar technology has a lot more potential than people realize. A lot of people dismiss it because they think of solar power as meaning photovoltaic cells (solar panels), and photovoltaic cells are at best a way to ameliorate heavy power usage. But photovoltaic isn't the most efficient way to do solar energy. For a bit of reassurance that solar can work, see this recent article on solar electric thermal (a.k.a. concentrated solar power) technology in Salon Magazine. You could run the current U.S. power grid, it is estimated, by building CSP stations across the country with a total area roughly one third the size of Rhode Island. I have seen an estimate which said that electric power represents one third of current overall U.S. power usage. If that's true, then you could power the entire U.S. (after replacing gas-powered cars with electric and so on) using the area of RI. And you could take 20 or 30 times the area of RI out of, say, Nevada or western Texas without anyone really caring.

(Furthermore, power storage for solar energy is starting to become practical, too. And, of course: if you actually did 20 or 30 times the area or RI devoted to solar power, and also had a reliable power grid, then you could just refine hydrogen from water during the day using the excess power, and burn it back into water at night.)

Then there's wind. Believe it or not, the most recent study on wind energy (which you can see summarized here) suggested that there is actually enough wind in the world to power everything, although harnessing most of it would be difficult. Wind power has stagnated in the U.S. largely because the Bush administration has done everything possible to stop it -- for example, development of wind farms in Texas near Abilene was halted by spurious claims (later debunked) that turbines might interfere with radar.

And, finally, for the technophile in all of us: if all goes well, it looks like commercial fusion power may come online as soon as 2050. The timeline for the ITER project (in Wikipedia here) gives 2050 as the date for the first commercial fusion plant. Hopefully by that time CSP and wind will have made fusion unnecessary (because fusion is nonrenewable even if it doesn't produce radioactive waste), but an extra power source can't hurt.

That doesn't mean that we aren't still screwed on many levels. Unless you have a hybrid already, for example, then the U.S. could have a functional solar/wind power grid tomorrow and your car would still be a dead end. A lot of infrastructure is going to be hit by peak oil not because of energy requirements but because the world has spent the better part of a century designing around oil rather than designing around electricity.

Still, "our infrastructure is going to collapse" is a lot more hopeful than "we're all going to starve to death miserably". Once the economics of the situation kills off suburbia, things will improve again. (Suburbs are an idea which just doesn't work with conservation: detached housing units are inefficient to heat and cool, scattered buildings waste resources on utility hookups, private transportation is wasteful of energy and infrastructure funding, lawns are wasteful of water... you name it, suburbia screws it up.)

The big obstacle to the transition is going to be people's attitudes. We need to convince ourselves not to be stupid and suicidal. We may succeed, although the continued existence of the Republican party suggests that we have a long way to go.

In any case, the real limiting factor on civilization is going to be clean water, not power. But fortunately water doesn't exactly run out, even if local water tables do.

Tommy said...

it's 30 years since the notion of peak oil became common wisdom within the oil industry and 25 years (or thereabouts) since ecologists started telling us to conserve Or Else. Anyone who thought, in 2000, that the U.S. suburban lifestyle was going to keep going indefinitely was... well, stupid.

I'm only 38 for goodness sakes, so it's not like the notion of peak oil has been known to me all my life. Besides, it is not as if the mainstream media talks about peak oil very much either. I doubt most Americans are even aware of it. If anything, they have this notion that gas is so high because them darned libruls' won't allow drilling in the ANWR.

Even before the rise in oil prices, I have tried to keep my energy usage low. When my mom and dad lived with us five years ago, my mom always complained that my house was too hot in summer or too cold in winter because I set the thermostat high in summer and low in winter to conserve energy.

And yes, you were a bit out of line. My post wasn't about crying a river. I actually set forth steps I am taking to deal with the situation that most people wouldn't go out of their way to do. Granted, there is probably more I can do, and I will continue to educate myself on the subject.

Suburbs are an idea which just doesn't work with conservation: detached housing units are inefficient to heat and cool, scattered buildings waste resources on utility hookups, private transportation is wasteful of energy and infrastructure funding, lawns are wasteful of water... you name it, suburbia screws it up.

I agree with you on that. Personally, I am not really big on making my lawn look like a putting green. Unfortunately, my wife sees things differently and we often disagree on it.

Thank you for the links and info on solar and wind power and for your insight.

Tommy said...

Well, one good thing came out of my bike riding this morning. On my way back home from Blockbuster and the Korean grocer, I came across an old lady who had fallen down on the sidewalk. She was trying to stand up again but was unable to do so, so I pulled over and helped her back to her feet.

Anonymous said...

(Same anonymous poster again, just to clarify.)

I'm only 38 for goodness sakes, so it's not like the notion of peak oil has been known to me all my life. Besides, it is not as if the mainstream media talks about peak oil very much either. I doubt most Americans are even aware of it. If anything, they have this notion that gas is so high because them darned libruls' won't allow drilling in the ANWR.

That's part of what annoys me about all the people who are just now discovering that Peak Oil is upon us. It seems to be an article of faith to most people that something can't be true or important unless the mainstream media talks about it. That's like deciding that it's okay to be totally ignorant of nutrition because fast food chains don't post calorie counts on their menus.

News flash: media outlets are businesses, and they are emphatically not competing with each other to tell you the news. After all, news broadcasts on TV don't cost us a dime, and the price of most newspapers is barely the cost of production and distribution. If the media relied on us to pay for it all, they'd be as bankrupt fiscally as they are morally.

The media's real business -- the thing which makes them money -- is delivering your attention to advertisers, preferably in a way which will make you likely to buy things. This being the case, they are unlikely at best to tell you anything which will make you stop buying. That includes reminding you that credit card debt is a bad idea, or that a mortgage means you can lose your house, or that fatty sugary food is bad for you, or that cheap consumer goods are usually a disappointing waste of money and resources. They are not going to tell you "hey, the price of gasoline is likely to double every year from now on, and that's going to make everything else more expensive too" in case you take it into your head to move near public transportation, sell your car, and start saving money.

(They also won't say much about the fact that the oil companies are making record profits right now, in case anyone starts doing that pesky math. Exxon Mobil alone made enough profit in 2007 -- that's profit, as in money left over after all the expenses, including infrastructure and strategic outlays, have been paid -- that they could give everyone in the whole world who used any gasoline in 2007, even gasoline Exxon Mobil had nothing to do with, a refund of five cents per gallon. And they'd still have profits left over. The actual amount per gallon which represented pure profit for the oil companies was substantially higher than that, and is almost certainly even higher now. Daily oil production is, after all, largely unchanged from last year, but prices are much higher. Bet you won't hear that from the mainstream media!)

As for the "I'm only 38" thing: that's a copout. I'm only 30 myself, but I've been aware of the coming of Peak Oil since about the age of 15, which is to say my entire adult life, and I wasn't even raised in a particularly "green" household, or a left-leaning town. (I grew up in a suburb which was, on the whole, Republican.) As Bill Waterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, once noted: most ignorance is willful.

Stardust said...

Tommy, that was good of you to help that woman.

It costs a fortune to fill up our van, so that has become the recreation vehicle only.

I am still baffled how jammed the roadways are around Chicagoland when gas prices are so incredibly high. There are more and more trucks shipping stuff around that comes from China and other overseas nations. People bitch about the prices but still seem able to pay the money. It's not making many people stay home, or ride bikes, etc.

I think what the suburbs need is a better public transportation system. There are only two buses from our suburb into Chicago and few to surrounding communities. There is the Metra train that comes through our town and goes to Chicago, but no transportation from our homes to the train stations.

Anonymous points out about the "suburban lifestyle" being unsustainable, but few have offered solutions and alternatives as to how we are supposed to get to our jobs and schools without driving there. Public transportation seems to be a thing just for city folks, and the people in the suburbs are left to find our own way and pay the price of high gasoline costs. Many people have started car pooling.

We all need to downsize, and need to phase out big vehicles except for RV and delivery.

Tommy said...

Unfortunately Stardust, "Anonymous" seems more concerned with attacking me personally like he or she has some sort of grudge against me or something.

I ride my bike and walk to reduce fuel consumption, I help an old lady who fell on the sidewalk, and I'm the problem?

Anything else you care to say to tear me down Anonymous?

Anonymous said...

(Anonymous again, being a ray of sunshine and joy as per usual.)

Arrgh. I don't mean to insult you particularly. If you're riding your bike, that's great. (And good exercise, to boot.) But there's no point in trying to sugar-coat the pill: barring an unbelievable scientific advance which can be retrofitted cheaply into a serious majority of gasoline engines, the current version of the U.S., at least, is toast, and you might as well start getting used to the idea that Things Are Going To Be Different within your lifetime. If we're lucky, and all act reasonably, maybe things will be Different but not Worse. But there's a substantial chance that things will be not just Worse but Very Much Worse -- as in "look, Martha, here come the bombs" worse.

If I tried to tell you everything will work out okay, I'd be lying, and it might (if you really seriously listened to me) have the undesirable effect of making you complacent about conservation. I'd rather you hate me now for being blunt, than hate me later for having misled you.

As for Stardust: that's true, I haven't told you how you're going to get to work and school while living in the suburbs. I'd be surprised if anyone could tell you that, because unless an awful lot of experts from different fields are wrong, you aren't going to be able to get to work and school while living in the suburbs without paying pretty heftily. Either budget for even higher gas prices than you're seeing now, or move closer to school or work or both.

To be blunt (as though I've been anything else): when you chose to live somewhere far from work and/or school, that was a choice, and like all other choices it has consequences. You have always had the option of looking for a new job closer to home, looking for a new home closer to work, or looking for a new job that has housing nearby. You chose not to do any of that. Your choice made sense while gas prices were low (ignoring global warming, of course) but that was conditional, and conditions have changed. If you had spent your entire life's savings on losing lottery tickets, that would also have been a choice, and nobody would really be able to help you out of that one either. In the end, you'll probably have to move into a higher-density area and work nearby, assuming that peak oil is handled rationally and calmly enough that we don't end up in some sort of horrible dystopia.

Stardust's post has inspired me. I think I'll try to resurrect my old Wordpress account and write about Things Which Could Be Done, which may not be an entirely positive tack but at least is less negative than I seem to be here. I'll post a URL here if I have the time and enthusiasm to actually go through with it.

Tommy said...

Anonymous wrote (and btw, can you at least adopt a name here?):

But there's no point in trying to sugar-coat the pill

If I tried to tell you everything will work out okay, I'd be lying, and it might (if you really seriously listened to me) have the undesirable effect of making you complacent about conservation. I'd rather you hate me now for being blunt, than hate me later for having misled you.


You don't have to sugar coat anything for me. My post acknowledges that things are going to get worse and that we are in for rough times ahead, so it is not like you have to convince me of how dire the situation is.

And just to make a few things clear, it is not as if I was unfamiliar with the concept of "peak oil" before I wrote this post. I have been aware of it for a few years now. Even if the price of gasoline had not skyrocketed recently, I would still be trying to modify my driving habits, albeit not as drastically as I am now.

I agree that many Americans are short-sighted about this. For years I have been driving the same 2 door Honda Civic (which my wife now drives), and when I would go to the day care to pick up my kids in the evening, other parents driving around in their SUV gas guzzlers would ask me when I planned to get a family sized car. "Why should I?" I would reply, "I am doing just fine with what I have now."

We're on the same side on this issue buddy, so you don't need to fling any barbs at me. By all means start blogging about your insights on this issue, and I will be a frequent reader. Heck, I will even put you in my sidebar and direct my other readers to read what you have to say.

I plan to make it a priority to educate myself on energy issues and hope to make it a frequent topic here at this blog. Granted, I probably should have been doing this years ago, but I didn't. But at least I am now.

Stardust said...

To be blunt (as though I've been anything else): when you chose to live somewhere far from work and/or school, that was a choice,

It is ludicrous to say that everyone should live in one place. There isn't enough room for everyone to live close to their jobs, school, etc. Jobs aren't always conveniently located to where a person lives. Schools where a person can afford to attend are not always conveniently located tow where our homes are. In Chicagoland, the homes are unaffordable where the jobs are. And where affordable homes are, there are no good-paying jobs. Prices of homes in Chicago city limits are skyrocketing and affordable housing is being replaced with million-dollar condos.

It's much more complex than anonymous is making it out to be.

Stardust said...

And forgot to add that if anonymous has a plan of action to improve transportation in the suburbs and explain how it will be paid for without taxing us to death, I am sure that many of us suburbanites would love to hear his "expert" solutions.

We are all ears.

cashpixie said...

I like to be optimistic too, but when I see 10% or more of gross pay going just to pay to get to work each week, I mean, it is frustrating! And the solution probably isn't to complain but to find a way to make ends meet and survive. Ideas?

Tommy said...

Hi Cashpixie!

I was reading a piece in the current issue of Harper's tonight on the train ride home. There was a thought provoking article by novelist Wendell Berry that concluded as follows:

And so, in confronting the phenomenon of "peak oil," we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of "more." Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one, if we can recover the necessary political sanity. Of course it makes sense to consider alternative energy sources, provided they make sense. But also we will have to re-examine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.

Poodles said...

Anonymous said:
To be blunt (as though I've been anything else): when you chose to live somewhere far from work and/or school, that was a choice, and like all other choices it has consequences. You have always had the option of looking for a new job closer to home, looking for a new home closer to work, or looking for a new job that has housing nearby. You chose not to do any of that. Your choice made sense while gas prices were low (ignoring global warming, of course) but that was conditional, and conditions have changed.

I could easily find a job closer to my house, but it would pay less than half of what I am making now, 10 miles from home ( I live in the hood, not much besides grocery stores and fast food there). The city I live in has horrible public transportation. We could move closer to our jobs, but then we would be 10 miles or more away from my paralyzed MIL whom we help take care of so we would have to travel back there. So I choose to live in a smaller house in the suburbs that is cheaper than it would be to live closer to our jobs which would be more expensive housing.

So yes, it can be a choice, but there are problems that don't make for easier solutions as just saying "well then find a new job or a new house." I'm glad your life is so simple you think a choice like that can be made whimsically by everyone.
But it cannot.

Tommy said...

We could move closer to our jobs, but then we would be 10 miles or more away from my paralyzed MIL whom we help take care of so we would have to travel back there.

Hey Poodles! Yes, as I acknowledged in my post, unfortunate circumstances make it impossible for some people to do things like move closer to their jobs, rely on public transportation or ride their bicycles to take care of local errands instead of driving. For most us, we simply have to make the best of the situation we are in.

Poodles said...

Tommy,
Exactly, most peoples lives are much more complicated than just saying, "well move or get a new job".

I wish things were that simple.