Commentary: Gas prices leave me feeling cheated

The Miami HeraldMarch 5, 2012 

I didn’t need a cup of joe to jolt me awake this morning. I filled up my gas tank instead.

#*%^&@!!!

I own a 5-year-old, fuel-efficient Honda Civic, a small car that gets the job done. In other words, it gets me from here to there economically, a highly valued attribute after a dozen years of putting children through college.

Depending how much I need to drive for work, I can go many days without a visit to the neighborhood pump. So even though I had been reading about the relentless uptick of gas prices, I hadn’t experienced it yet.

But this morning … sticker shock: $3.85.a gallon.

And that was the best price on my commuting route. Several other stations were selling gas for pennies more per gallon.

Oil prices have been rising steadily for weeks, with Iran’s decision to cut exports to Britain and France becoming the latest incident blamed for the spiral. Prices are nearly 9 percent higher than the beginning of the year, and the American Automobile Association warns they may reach $4 per gallon by May. Others predict $5.

The last time prices topped $4 was in 2008, when the economic sky was falling. Or at least it felt that way.

Much is being made about what higher gas prices will mean for everything from the U.S. economy to the presidential election. All well and good, but I’m a reductionist. For me, and for most people I know, it’s all about the impact on my wallet. If I’m spending more here, I have to spend less there.

Another thing: Perhaps more than any other commodity we deem essential, pumping inexplicably expensive gas prompts this inchoate feeling that I’m being conned. That somebody is making lots of money at my expense. That somebody is pulling the wool over my confused consumer eyes.

Little wonder that gasoline companies make everybody’s Most Reviled Businesses lists. During the 2010 Gulf oil spill googling “I Hate BP” brought up millions of hits. Only big banks give the Exxons, the Chevrons and the BPs of this world competition in the hate department.

Surely part of our love-hate relationship with black gold has to do with the mystery of its pricing. Trying to understand the factors that influence the pump numbers is like working on an algebraic word problem when you can’t read or add. You know there’s a problem to solve, you know there’s an answer, but you can’t make heads or tails of the options presented. Brent crude. Wholesalers. Government regulations. Gasoline formulas.

Economists say that prices are determined by the law of supply and demand. Yet, I keep reading that consumption in the United States is down and production is at a high. That should mean stable prices, no? And why should headlines translate to skyrocketing pump prices within hours? Speculation?

Like most everybody in my generation, I’ve lived through countless gas crises. My first, the 1973 oil embargo, introduced me to long lines and gas-pump rage, to the promise that we would wean ourselves from our addiction to oil.

Now here we are almost 40 years later, no less dependent and just a little closer to the promise of clean, inexpensive energy consumption. Maybe $5 a gallon isn’t such a bad thing — if that’s what it takes for us to conserve more, drive less and look for alternative fuel options. At $3.85, it already has gotten my attention.

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