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Control the pain at the pump

Alan Braunholtz
Vail CO, Colorado

Along with the delicate bright green aspen leaves and the head-turning dots of color as the first flowers push through the mud is another sign of spring: the indignant squawking of SUV owners at the gas pumps who can’t believe the prices. Beats me why, as it happens every year. Stupidly, Congress can’t resist feeding this open-mouthed cawing and is trying to pass a “no gas gouging” bill, which will do nothing except perhaps look good.

Retail gas stations ” even those with big corporate signs ” are mainly independently owned. They make the least of anyone in the gas supply chain with an average profit margin of 1 percent.

Even if you point the finger at the gasoline refiners you find they’re making a profit of about 12.5 percent. This isn’t that high; many companies make much more yet I haven’t heard calls for a “buy no cappuccino day.”

Why are we so selectively annoyed at higher fuel prices? Perhaps deep down we know it heralds a change in a wasteful lifestyle we can’t admit to ” yet. Oil companies are no different than any other industry where companies are merging to form mega-corporations that can better force the market into allowing them higher profits while government backs away from regulation.

Remember Enron? If you’re looking for real price gouging just look at the privatization of essential utilities. In 1999, Bechtel caused massive riots in Cochabamba, Bolivia when it took control of the water supply, raised rates 35 percent and outlawed residents from collecting rainwater from their roofs.

Gasoline is to the U.S. what water is to Bolivians: we can’t live without it.

But we do have a choice. Minivans make sense for larger families, pickups for farmers and builders, but for most of us our cars are a fashion item. If you choose a monster SUV then you have to live with it. A smaller car still goes from A to B and will cut your fuel costs in half (not to mention insurance, registration, tires, maintenance, etc.) and is cheaper to buy. You can use the $10,000 or more you’ll save for a house downpayment, start a college fund or to rent a truck for the day you might actually need one.

Once you choose what you drive, you can choose how you drive. As my project to see how long I can keep an old car running sadly enters its last stages, I’m in a perfect position to see who is driving at 55 – 60 mph: pretty much no one. I’ve yet to pass an SUV ” except while refueling.

Driving in a relaxed manner actually is much more productive. Accelerating so you can tailgate or preventing someone from entering the roundabout ahead of you just to hammer on the brakes can cost you more than 30 percent in reduced gas mileage and the occasional heart attack later in life.

Reducing demand works. In the winters, a 7-percent drop in demand results in a 25-percent price drop. Reduced gasoline consumption would also be a good first step to limiting our greenhouse gas emissions.

Global warming will change our lives more than a few more dollars at the pump will.

Smaller, more efficient cars seem to work everywhere else in the world, but it’s going to take a consistently high pump price to overcome that new-car-lot amnesia that allows us to buy large vehicles we don’t need and often can’t afford. Peer pressure is an amazingly strong force and is the major explanation I come up with for the current popularity of massive SUVs. Hopefully it can act in reverse, too.

Dislike oil companies? Then buy a smaller car. If you really want to stick it to them ask every car dealer when they’re getting a hybrid and buy one as soon as any emerge.

If you’re really angry at pump prices watch the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and marvel at the shortsighted stupidity of General Motors and the selfish manipulation of the oil companies.

Imagine almost never having to go to a gas station and refueling your car at home by plugging it into cheap, off-peak electricity. Then imagine a world of very unhappy oil companies who, like Bechtel in Bolivia, don’t want customers bypassing their monopoly of supply. Biofuels and hydrogen-cell cars are favorite alternatives for them because they’ll still be in control. They’re also much further away than plug-in hybrids, which could be here now.

We can choose to whine. Or we can choose to face the reality of our actions.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a biweekly column for the Daily.


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