Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Great Gasoline Hoax of the 2008 Election

Has any one else noticed that as Barack Obama’s numbers go up, the price of gas is coming down? Could there be a connection? Or is it just a coincidence?

According to the US Government travel office statistics, as quoted by Reuters, gas demand is declining because Americans are driving less. Driving less? Are you driving less? I’m not. Take one look at the traffic-choked arteries of any major city and it seems nobody else is either.

True, escalating gas prices reduced summer vacation travel to some extent but it seems with the costly add-ons and personal inconvenience of air travel more people are opting to drive reasonably long distances rather than fly anyway. Amtrak fares are no bargain and the bus lines have initiated security measures comparable to the airlines. Still it didn’t prevent an irritated whacko from knifing to death a fellow bus passenger in Canada not too long ago.

I don’t know what part of the country they did their study but here in the Northeast-New York area when the price started going up last spring I saw little reduction of cars on the interstates, highways and city roads I use especially in so-called off-peak hours when I do most of my driving. Sometimes I saw definite increase.

I automatically question any research that comes from the oil lobby—I mean, the Bush Administration. One knows how short on truth and expansive with facts their interpretations run. “Global warning is over-rated” and “The economy is doing fine” are two recent claims that come immediately to mind.

Here are two unscientific studies from my own driving experience.

Three years ago, I started driving to Central New York on a regular basis to work on a project. I’d try to leave Manhattan mid-afternoon Thursday or before 11 AM Friday at the latest and return Monday mid-afternoon or Tuesday morning, figuring I was avoiding the up-Friday-night-back-Sunday-night weekend crowd. During the fall and winter months, I kept the same routine, sometimes skipping a weekend and staying an extra day the following. For two years the traffic—and gas prices—except for the hurricane Katrina interlude--remained about the same--manageable.

Late morning-early afternoon along 87 North, barreling tractor trucks were plentiful compared to the number of passenger cars whisking past. Rarely delays, except for occasional roadwork or rubbernecking at an accident across the median. Connecting to 90W outside Albany, the 50-mile stretch to my final destination was practically emissions-free anytime I used it a little before the Albany-area rush hour. It was so lonely at times in the middle of the day I wondered if NY State taxpayers were getting their money’s worth.

Then last spring the roads suddenly got busier. As the price of gas started rising precipitously I started to see a lot more cars on the 87N heading to Albany. Some of them were other weekenders getting an early start. Yet, there was a noticeable blip in motorists, especially along the 90 corridor. Traffic seemed to have doubled over the previous year but still relatively easy traveling.

Another thing that nobody is talking about is the fact that we are driving a lot faster on these roads, which increases consumption. The posted 65mph speed limit is pretty much ignored, and enforcement seems to target real excessive speeders: drivers doing 85mph or better. Cruising along conservatively between 75 and 80mph seems not to draw flashing lights and a costly fine.

What is even more amazing is the number of gas guzzling SUVs that fly past my economical Honda Civic chugging along a little above 70mph when I’m feeling thrifty and just below 80 when I’m not. Even at those speeds, driving in the changing lane cars come up behind me fast and speed past as soon as I get out of the way. None appears worried about increases at the pump. Drive 65mph and you feel you are practically standing still.

My second case study is driving in the city.

My mother lives in downtown Brooklyn and when I go over during the week I try to leave the latest around 1 PM. Any later and I run into backups on the FDR Drive approach to the Brooklyn Bridge. Depending on the purpose of my visit, I either stay a couple of hours and on my way before 4 PM or wait until after 7 PM to head back to Manhattan to avoid the daily traffic jam that overwhelms my mother’s Fort Greene neighborhood.

Usually the three arteries of traffic feeding the Brooklyn Bridge are running smoothly though the BQE often has backups pushing drivers into neighborhood streets to use other approaches. Usually the bridge is slow going until reaching the ramp onto the northbound lanes of FDR Drive. Inevitably, cars approaching the bridge in the southbound lanes are backed up, sometimes as far back as the exit for the Williamsburg Bridge.

In the past few months, it’s gotten worst. I have to leave earlier, and be on my way back into the city by 3 PM or so if I want to avoid slowdowns and congestion at key interchanges. I hate to imagine what the scene will be like when Ratner builds his basketball stadium and apartment towers over the Atlantic track yards.

I’m not seeing less cars on the road but more. Friends I speak to in LA say the same. So, where exactly is it are folks driving less--or slower? Why is the price dropping? Especially if only weeks ago there were refinery closings in the Gulf due to hurricanes and severe shortages reported in the Southeast? Isn’t that when the prices usually goes up?

Apparently, the source for the government study is an industry friendly marketing company. I’ve heard some mumbo-jumbo about how speculators are playing with oil futures now that practically everything else on Wall Street is going south and that's causing prices to fall. On that I don’t feel able to comment. (One knowledgeable friend assures me this is the case but as you can see I have my own empirical testimony.) All things being equal I think, if anything, the oil companies encourages whatever works to their benefit.

One thing is certain: the apparent election of Barack Obama is going to be apocalyptic. His middle class-centric policies scare the corporate giants. The cozy relationship the oil lobby enjoys with Congress and especially the two oilmen in the White House is moving to a new era. Because if Mr. Obama gets the job, big business knows, it will be no longer business as usual.

Could the sudden price drops mean the energy industry is bending over to grease the chances of an oil-friendly Westerner’s grab for the Oval Office? If consumers can still be lulled into believing that low gas prices are coming back because of market forces, I have a bridge I want to sell. (Ouch!)

I'm going to need more than a Bush Administration press release to believe otherwise.

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