It was something I had done many, many times. The mechanics of it were so familiar that I might have been tying my shoes. I didn’t have to think about what my hands were doing or why they were doing it. It was just another routine, mundane little task on the road of life.
I was filling up with gas.
Later on, I did think about it. I was reading an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, the title of which was “.”
The piece reminded me of just how different things had once been. And might still be, if some convictions about oil and the automobile had prevailed. Things might well have gone the other way. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Counties might well have broken America.
There was once a time (children) when you couldn’t just pull into a gas station and fill ’er up and then get back on the big open American road and cruise ether for pleasure or for purpose. It wasn’t a question of money. Even if you could afford the same price for a gallon of gasoline that you were accustomed to paying for a fifth of good sour mash whiskey, you were likely subject to some form of rationing. You might be limited to a purchase of only ten gallons. Or you might not be allowed to pump any gas at all if the last digit on your license plate was an odd number and service that day was limited to the evens.
There were fist fights in the gas lines. Some black market activity. Cases of people hoarding gas. A few carried an extra five-gallon jerry can or two, full of gas, in the trunk and some of them died when they were rear ended and their cars burst into flame.
It was, all in all, ugly stuff.
That would have been in 1973, when the Saudis engineered an OPEC boycott in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel in its recent war with the Arab states. And it was the beginning of a long political struggle around the nature of America’s relationship with the automobile and oil.
There was another oil embargo in 1979. These were the Carter years of scarcity, stagflation, and a general sense of “malaise.” Carter never used the actual word but is still tagged with having given a speech with that as its theme. And it is a fair cop.
The vulnerability of the United States to manipulation of petroleum markets led to one of those typical political divides. One side believed the answer came down to “more.” The other preached the gospel of “less.”
So we had government-mandated standards for fuel efficiency. Pickup trucks were partially off the hook since they were farm vehicles. The pickup and the SUV became so popular with American drivers that GM recently gave up making small sedans.
We had 55 MPH speed limits, enforced by a Department of Transportation and threats against state governments that were reluctant to go along. People were encouraged to car pool on their commutes to work.
There was a kind of Puritanical shaming of the automobile and the internal combustion engine by people like Joan Claybrook and Ralph Nader. We were all encouraged to use mass transit and we spent tall money to build new systems like the Metro in Washington, D.C. It is a disaster in terms of maintenance and operations.
Oil was also demonized. Its scarcity was taken as a given and we were told that we would soon reach a tipping point called “peak oil.” We stashed oil in played out salt mines and called it a “strategic reserve” as though hoarding were somehow the answer. We were told that we were “addicted to oil” (by a Republican President from Texas, no less) and that we would never be able to “drill our way of this” (by Democrats, mostly). We lavished money on famers so that they would grow corn which would be made into ethanol and added to gasoline. A waste, as it turned out, of good money and good corn. Better it should have been made into sour mash.
And through it all, we maintained a sycophantic and humiliating relationship with “our friends the Saudis.” It was a dysfunctional marriage, kept together for the sake of the oil. We even went to war to preserve it.
Through it all the American relationship (love and hate, both, to be sure) with the automobile was strained but never broken. GM went bankrupt but came back. The SUV became the vehicle of choice. Millions still commuted to work in their own automobiles which they also used to take the family on vacation. The American highway remained crowded even as the price of gasoline fluctuated and sometimes reached painful levels.
There were no more embargoes though the U.S. still remained dependent on imported oil. Until… it didn’t
As it turned out, we could — and did — “drill our way out of this.”
American technology and ingenuity did what government rationing and propaganda could not. Fracking and horizontal drilling won the war for energy independence which had been the unaccomplished goal of every administration since Nixon’s.
I paid a little more than $2.00 a gallon for that fill up. In some states, it would have been less.
The end of America’s dependency on imported oil comes, ironically, when it is possible to make out a time — two or three decades from now — when the world might actually realize a form of “peak oil.” But on the demand, rather than the supply, side. Electric vehicles are coming on and the means of generating the electricity to keep them charged may not even require the burning of natural gas. Wind and solar may be enough. And there is always nuclear. And in some distant day, perhaps, cold fusion.
Meanwhile, the average American can pull in and fill up without feeling too much pain. Turns out that we could drill our way out of this. And did.