So I'm sitting in Wendy's, polishing off a Frosty at just the right speed to avoid getting a headache, when a couple of guys wander in and launch into a kvetchfest about gas prices.

"Do you believe that? A dollar sixty-eight! It was, like, one fifty-five last week." And, in truth, it was; I paid that at a Texaco Star Mart just up the street on the tenth. "You can't convince me that it's worth that kind of money." I wondered if maybe they'd posed the same questions to the poor shlub manning the cash register at the gas station, but I didn't say anything. Nor did I say anything when the guys each scored 32-ounce drinks for $1.09, which works out to $4.36 a gallon and which are marked up a heck of a lot more than the 87-octane stuff that as of this morning sells for $1.68. (If you're in Chicago, read "$1.68" as "$2.49".)

"The government oughta do something about it." Like what? The President has already announced that he feels our pain; isn't that enough? The last time the government actually did something about it, in the Seventies, we got gas stations open less often than a downtown bank, gas lines running down the block and into the next one, and all manner of political posturing. And anyway, while OPEC is certainly not blameless, it looks like the government itself may have aggravated this particular price surge. On the first of June, a number of metropolitan areas were ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency to switch to a new formulation of gasoline, intended to help with those areas' ongoing air-pollution problems. The EPA's guesstimate of five to six cents a gallon additional cost was apparently way off; refiners are suggesting that production costs have gone up, not five cents, but fivefold. Changing over a refinery from old-style gasoline to the New Age stuff is expensive all traces of the former fuel must be ruthlessly excised, it appears, to meet EPA specs and since most crude oil is processed at refineries near the coastal ports where the tankers dock, regardless of where the final products may end up, some refineries may have to switch from non-RFG to RFG and back again to keep up with summer demand. Eventually the industry will develop an infrastructure to handle RFG efficiently, but it's not here yet.

Next time we pull in at the Kwik-E-Mart, I suppose we can console ourselves with the thought that little kids in Chicago and Houston are breathing cleaner air. Except, of course, for the minor detail that they aren't. The vast majority of vehicle-induced pollution comes from a relative handful of old beaters in bad shape, a situation which reformulated gasoline does zip to alleviate; on the smog-production scale, a whole parking lot of Ford Excursions generates less spewage than Cousin Dupree's El Camino with worn piston rings. So much for government doing something to help.

If the Feds can be kept at bay long enough, the price situation, as it always does, will take care of itself. Demand will slacken after summer; OPEC members, acting independently of the cartel, will increase production beyond their quotas in an effort to fatten their treasuries. In the meantime, though we shudder at the thought, we always have the option of using less gas. Long as I'm up, anybody want anything from Wendy's?

The Vent

17 June 2000

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 Copyright © 2000 by Charles G. Hill