How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love High Gas Prices

So it’s a beautiful Wednesday in the early evening and I’m sitting in a traffic jam at a gas station. I’ve already been here ten minutes, idling, creeping forward, jockeying for positions at the next available pump. Don’t even think about it, lady. No, no, no – Shit! I’m thinking about retro television footage from the 1973 oil embargo with lines of station wagons and Impalas snaking down suburban city streets. At least back then people could blame OPEC, greedy Ayatollahs or those damn communists – remember Communism? So retro!– for the outrageous 55 cents a gallon. Gee whiz!

Now I’m starting at a King Soopers sign that says $3.55 for regular unleaded (four cents cheaper than down the street) and the line I’m in consists of oversized Chevy Tahoes and GMC Yukons. Blame these days is much harder to assign. Something about China’s growth, oil worker strikes in the UK and military attacks on suppliers in Nigeria. Commodities brokers . . . futures trading? About all I’m sure of as I finally get my Civic to the pump is that my gas light has been flashing orange for the last hour and all I have in my pocket is twenty bucks. So my grocery money goes glug glug into the tank and the only thing that makes me feel better is spying on my fellow pumpers, the ones with the mammoth four-door super trucks and Navigators so tall they have to grip the unused bike rack to climb in. The tickers read: $67.15, $75.33, $81.50. Some of these monsters cost $90 to fill.

I look at their faces. I know that they know that they’re fucked when the per-gallon average hits four bucks this summer. (Some cities passed that high-water mark months ago and are creeping toward five smackers.) I should feel sorry for them, I know, but instead I have this pleasant tingle my chest. For anybody that, like me, has spent the last decade pissed-off as trucks and SUVs grew steadily larger and more garish it’s quite a vindicating feeling. Finally, owners of these jumbo vehicles are able to see what the rest of us knew all along: these cars are ridiculously, unnecessarily, scandalously big. Nine miles per gallon? Are you serious, guy in the Dodge Ram 1500? Nine? What type of sloppy arrogance were you afflicted with when you thought that buying a Dodge Ram 1500 to get to your job in the Tech Center was a good idea? And what of you, lady in the Lincoln Navigator. You probably reasoned that you needed the roomy interior to safely tote around the kiddos. Well, I’m sure you wish you could trade in your air-conditioned luxury bus for a minivan now that the 11mpg now costs you more than $12 just to go to the mall.

I’m projecting, of course, but it is true with high gas prices and a weakening economy that hordes of former SUV die-hards are attempting to swap their mobile CO2 factories for more fuel efficient rides. This has resulted in a glut of outsized luxury vehicles that dealers are desperately trying to unload with little success since all that consumers are interested in now are sedans and hybrids. The writing has been on the wall since 2005, when the national average hit $2.50 per gallon. But three years and a dollar later, I think we can safely say the age of the SUV is finally over. It really is amazing when you think about it. Just three months of record high gas prices have done more to change America’s driving habits than all the global warming concerts, Al Gore presentations, and eco-terrorist firebombings combined.

For me, it’s not just about finding enjoyment in the pain of SUV owners, however pleasurable. It’s like what I always say to my hippie friends who have the gall to bitch about robber baron oil companies jacking up prices: Cheap gas is the great American enabler. It’s why home developers continue building further out into the prairie, why it’s more cost effective for supermarkets to stock asparagus flown in from Chile than stalks grown in Longmont, why it makes more sense to drive to the office than take the bus or car pool. Your save-the-planet informational booth may have gotten great vibes from folks at the farmers market, but elevated fuel costs have an instantaneous, far-reaching impact on the causes environmentalists hold important.

The metro area neighborhoods that are best weathering the mortgage crisis, for example, are close in to the city near jobs. Brand new developments in east Aurora or in Firestone are seeing foreclosed homes sitting empty with little hope of resell. Potential buyers are doing the math on the hour-plus commutes and shaking their heads. The one glimmer of hope for the building industry should gas prices stay in the stratosphere are mixed-use developments near future light rail stations – which commuters will use more in lieu of driving, giving all mass transit a boost. Expensive gas also gives corporations, policy makers and homeowners in Colorado tangible economic incentive to invest in wind farms, biofuels, solar panels, hamster wheels, what have you. Alternative energy is now more than an Earth Day buzzword. Plus, it gives me the ability to laugh at the guy in the yellow Hummer who looks like he’s about to cry while unscrewing his gas cap. Too bad your banana boat doesn’t run on tears, buddy! Ha, ha – in your pale, non-fuel-efficient FACE!

All of this is why I’ve learned to love high gas prices and hope that they stay high. It’s not a popular thing to say. Certainly it would be rhetorical suicide for any politician to admit that expensive gas is the only way for our country to begin breaking its addiction to fossil fuels, foreign or otherwise. Costs at the pump start getting high and soon congressional staffers get calls from angry constituents. The airline industry is convulsing with bankruptcy and mergers. Hundreds of truckers made a caravan to Washington to protest the $4.20 a gallon for diesel. Hillary Clinton and John McCain have both called for a suspension of the federal Gas Tax, 18.4 cents a gallon, for the summer travel season. Clinton says she would pay for it by instead imposing a windfall-profits tax on oil companies. Score one for the little consumer! Not so, says Barack Obama, who argues that lifting the tax would encourage people to drive more, increasing demand and actually end up raising the cost per gallon. Most economists agree that the McCain-Clinton plan is just about the worst idea they’ve ever heard. Because the truth is that, aside from nationalizing the oil companies a la Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, there is very little a president or wannabe president can do about fluctuation on the global oil market.

Obama is in a tough position on this front. His energy plan vigorously advocates energy independence through investment in renewables. He doesn’t go so far as to say expensive gas is good. Rather, at a campaign stop in Indiana last week, he said that the only way to lower gas prices is to lower demand and “free ourselves from the tyranny of oil.” But he offers no easy answers for how we’ll get there, which didn’t exactly play well to the crowd of Hoosier farmers worried they won’t be able to fuel their tractors this summer. And that’s a hard spot. Because despite my joy at watching SUV drivers suffer, the reality is that the people hurt most by high-priced gas aren’t the ones that could afford a $60,000 Escalade. It’s the folks who were already struggling with heating bills and food prices, both of which have jumped in recent weeks with the price of crude. Or it’s the people who lose their jobs in the recession only made worse by expensive fuel. Our entire economy floats on a sea of cheap oil, so it’s all of us who get fucked when the cost goes up, not just the dumb prick in the silver F250.

Even me. As I pull away from the station and head toward the freeway, I’m wondering what I have in the cupboards that I can concoct into something resembling dinner now that I spent all my cash on gas. I can see there’s a storm rolling in from the West and that tomorrow’s going to be crappy weather. Inexpensive gasoline, like the guzzling SUV, is simply a thing of the past. Both will be replayed thirty years from now in retro television news footage. We will laugh nostalgically and wonder what the hell we were all thinking riding around in those stupid huge cars. But this road I’m on here, today, is the road we built. And, for now, we must drive it. Hopefully in smaller cars. –- Jared Jacang Maher