With gas prices running above $3.00/gallon of late, a lot of people have been wondering what we can do about it. Some have proposed price controls (such as Hawaii — hope they don’t mind getting a lot less gas in the future), others have denounced the oil companies, and a lot of people just cuss out the sellers.
Our dependency on gasoline — indeed, on petroleum in general — is no great secret. It’s been talked about for decades, but nobody ever seems to do anything about it. The problem is our entire infrastructure is built around oil, has been for at least a century, and that ain’t gonna change overnight. We need short-term solutions, mid-term solutions, and long-term solutions, and we needed to start them a couple of decades ago — but better late than never.
In the short term, there’s an easy solution to cutting down on gasoline shortages. Thanks to environmental laws in the several states, we have no less than 15 “regional blends” of gasoline. That means that we have 15 different “flavors” of gasoline, and it’s against the law to sell gas intended for one region in another. We desperately need to cut that down to one standard (or, at the least, get it down as close to one as is possible), so that regional shortages (such as are plaguing the South right now) can be offset by shipments from other areas. As it stands now, gasoline is simply not fungible enough.
The added advantage of this will be to reduce refining costs somewhat, as the refiners can simplify and standardize their operations, and not try to anticipate the demand for gas in various regions, and divvy up scarce refining capacity to suit.
For an intermediate solution, we need to increase our refining capacity. Right now, a huge percentage of our refineries are along the Gulf coast (logically enough), along with New Jersey and the Midwest, along the major rivers. The Pacific Coast has a couple in California, but that’s it. It’s time to build more refineries, and spread them out a bit. The government needs to start giving tax incentives to refiners to build new facilities, and in places that currently lack them. I’m no expert, but I suspect a big refinery in Washington or Oregon could be used to handle Alaskan oil, or perhaps some offshore drilling off California, for example. And if you want to stick one in New Hampshire, that’s fine with me. If the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard hadn’t survived the latest round of base closings, that might be a decent possibility.
The long-term solution, of course, is to cut our dependency on foreign oil entirely. Develop more economical ways of extracting petroleum from shale. Work on alternate forms of energy. Use some of the technologies we’ve already developed, and set aside (wind, nuclear, hydro, and the like.)
Our entire civilization is built upon affordable energy. And we either need to make sure we continue to have access to that, or start looking into alternatives to civilization.
And I much prefer the former.
(Google is a wonderful thing. My work on this piece was tremendously assisted by this page. Who’d have thought that the most accessible source of information about our nation’s petroleum infrastructure would be the National Association of Convenience Stores? I think I’ll have to go buy an extra ice cream thingie in gratitude.)
Update: RightNumberOne points out that the EPA has lifted the restrictions on regional blends in the South. While that’s a good start it’s clearly stated that it’s a temporary measure — and we need to make it permanent.