I pass by a derelict gas station every day on my commute to work. It’s owners closed up shop back in late 2004/early 2005 when the state converted the local highway into a freeway, removing the three intersections and replacing them with one exit/entry ramp. This particular gas station found itself about a half-mile away from the ramp and ended up being the station farthest away from there, so the owners decided to pack it in.
The station is still there, with some shop fixtures and junk littering the old food mart area and a blue tarp covering up the station sign, which still has the gas prices from their last day of operation up and visible through the plastic. Regular unleaded was selling for $1.97 per gallon that day. At the time the station closed I was complaining about the high cost of gas. In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, I remember driving past that sign and wistfully thinking about how cheap $1.97 seemed when the other stations in the area were selling the same stuff for about $3.45. Since the end of the 2005 hurricane season, gas prices have dropped back under $3/gallon and most of us, being the well-trained consumers we are, were glad that we were ‘only’ paying $2.50 or so for gas, which seemed like a bargain in comparison. I’d still drive by that closed station most days, and ever so often I’d see that old price barely visible under that tarp, smile to myself, and think about what once was and how it would never be again.
Fast forward to early 2007. The combination of a very mild winter, some signs of economic sluggishness, a tame 2006 hurricane season and the viccissitudes of the oil market have driven gas prices back down to levels most of us thought we’d never see again, even though the economists kept on telling us that oil would be back to $30 per barrel soon. While oil hasn’t fallen quite that far, it is much lower than it has been for about 19 months, and the local gas stations are now offering 87 octane gas for $1.95 per gallon.
What’s interesting is that the national media, while lauding the current low prices, have not really discounted the peak oil meme this time around. It appears that the conversation has changed, and that volatile energy prices are now a given. Gas mileage is still an important selling point for cars, and when I listen to NPR, I’m constantly bombarded by sponsorship messages for Honda and Toyota, both of whom are promoting their hybrid vehicles. Some Americans have lost their minds and bought new large trucks and SUV’s as grocery-getters and commuter vehicles, but more and more people are accepting that our heavy dependence on oil is a problem, and that the oil age is starting it’s long denouement. That’s an important change in the country’s thinking even though it’s still in it’s infancy. The next big step will be when more people start making the connection between oil and food, since our modern factory farming relies on black gold and related petrochemicals to feed most of the world’s six billion-plus people.
It’s hard to say if we’ve hit the ‘plateau’ phase of peak oil or not. World oil production hasn’t climbed much beyond 85 million barrels per day, but more new production will be coming online in the next few years. Whether that new production is enough to cancel out declines in existing fields, let alone increase overall capacity, remains to be seen (and if they do, for how long?). In the meantime, the price of oil is becoming more volatile, with seemingly minor geopolitical or financial events causing the price of gas to jump or drop accordingly. We’ve had a nice combination of events result in plummeting oil prices which we should enjoy while it lasts. In today’s crazy market, all it takes is one hurricane, terrorist attack or war to send prices heading back up, which it will do eventually. In the meantime, I’m going to take the extra time of relative social/economic/political stability to acquire more tools and skills for a low-energy future and enjoy the present time of plenty.
I’m thinking about taking the camera to the local gas station and taking a picture of the price up on the sign. Someday my kids or grandkids will think I’m lying to them when I tell them how cheap gasoline was in early 2007. A buck ninety-five? Get real…