Friday, April 8, 2011

We have to import all that oil we use, so what did you expect?

Yesterday, while I was buried with other projects, I noticed that Obama's remarks about gasoline prices had some bloggers up in arms. Whatever else I might think about Obama, his is right that there is very little that the White House can do to reduce gasoline prices short term. I'd go a bit further and suggest that the White House really doesn't have that much pull in the medium to long term either, as long as the US continues to consume oil products in ridiculous quantities. As long as we have to import our primary sources for fuel, we will be paying whatever prices our importers wish to charge. If the more pessimistic of the peak oil folks are correct, even our importers may not have much influence on pricing. The bottom line is that we're going to have to get used to $3.50-$4.00 per gallon gasoline for the foreseeable future. The White House can suggest investing in public transport and improving our railways - which would seem reasonable enough - but those suggestions will likely go nowhere with the current Congressional makeup. As long as we have enough politicians who find it more beneficial to cozy up to Big Oil than to work towards a functioning post-oil infrastructure, we should expect to be saddled with an increasingly dysfunctional status quo.

So what to do in the short term? We don't have an infrastructure in place for adequate public transportation in most parts of the US. Some major northeastern and midwestern metropolitan areas may be exceptional - for the rest of us, we live with an infrastructure that was built on the assumption that we could keep on enjoying happy motoring forever. About the only things we can do are to look for ways to cut back on fuel consumption. That means cutting out unnecessary trips, driving more moderately (if you pretend the roadways are NASCAR tracks, you'll burn up much more gas than if you observe speed limits), and purchase vehicles that have excellent fuel economy. Our household is in the process of replacing our two vehicles. We just replaced our old minivan, which at the ripe old age of 13, was ready to go. There's not much that can be done about fuel economy for most minivans other than to looks for something that gets as close to 15-20 MPG city as possible. That's not quite gas guzzler territory, but it's not great either. But, as long as we have dependent children, we'll be using something along those lines for now. I'm pretty happy under the circumstances with our new van. It'll do its job, and if we drive conservatively, we should be able to avoid too many trips to the pump.The other vehicle is a subcompact. It's going to be 14 years old soon. Right now I get about 30 MPG with it, and it has served me much better than I could have hoped. My plan is to replace it sometime in the next year, finances permitting. Since I only use it for commutes to work and local errands, and don't have to worry about regularly transporting kids with my current ride, I have the luxury of seeking out a vehicle considerably smaller than my current subcompact. My goal is to find something that gets 40-50 MPG, which should be doable.  Hybrids look really good to me right now.

Personally, I'd prefer to see the prices of gasoline go down, but the reality is that I have little control over that. Simply getting outraged and hanging onto the delusion that cheap gasoline is somehow our birthright will not suffice.


Don Durito said...

The best eco thing to do with your old cars is often to - keep driving them, which you have done. This suggests a problem with minivans - a bigger vehicle, other things being equal, has a bigger manufacturing footprint.  So don't just worry about high fuel consumption.  We have children, but avoid minivans - too big, same problem as an SUV.  I don't care if Chrysler tells families they need one.  A wagon with a roofbox works.  Maybe things have changed very recently, but I remain skeptical of hybrids.  Two powertrains = extra weight and manufacturing footprint.  The one big benefit is regenerative braking, if all your driving is urban.  But there are claims - worth checking out - that real world hybrid mileage doesn't match the propaganda.  I would check the latest generation diesels.  One thing you can't take away from diesel fuel - it has ~15% more energy by volume therefore weight than gasoline.  Plus you're not lugging around an extra powertrain, diesels use fewer consumables, and last somewhat longer than gasoline engines.  Worth looking into.  My next car will be diesel or fully electric.  And low weight please (forlorn hope).

Don Durito said...

Thanks for the info Maxx. When the time comes, which is inevitable with a 14 year old vehicle sooner rather than later, I'll see what is available with my budget on the diesel or electric front (the former is probably much more realistic than the latter). My goal is to use as little fuel as possible. If you have some good diesel suggestions let me know. I live in an urban area with no shortage of diesel stations.

As for minivans, I'd probably have opted for something like a wagon, but I have two kids with motion sickness issues (we've tried dramamine, etc., with only modest success) and one who is not. Last time we took a family trip in a smaller vehicle, I had one kid hurling on one of the others and nearly ended up in an accident dealing with the ensuing chaos. Having the kids more spread out has been a good thing on that front. I just drive more like a "grandpa" than I used to to save what fuel I can. That and encouraging the family to pack as light as possible (always a forlorn hope, but it never hurts to try).

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