At first I laughed out loud when I saw the sign at a filling station in the Northeast area of Kansas City.
After I passed it, a degree of worry started to set in. The startling sign I saw earlier this year was a radical departure from the recent plunge in oil and gas prices. What had stayed fixed around $3.50 a gallon for regular is now under $1.90 a gallon.
But the head-turning gas price on the sign I passed said $9.34 a gallon. It seemed ludicrous that the price would’ve jumped about three times what was posted the day before. Obviously it was a mistake, and when I passed by later the price was back to normal. But what is normal?
The odd occurrence made me think about how gas prices have changed in the last few years, and American motorists have become conditioned to paying whatever it takes. We have endured wild price swings.
In 1976 when I bought my first vehicle, gasoline on average cost 59 cents a gallon. Operating my 1969 Volkswagen bus minus repairs seemed like a dream.
The average price of fuel more than doubled by 1980 to $1.19 a gallon during an oil shortage. We endured long lines at the pump, and some stations even limited the amount of gas sold to people.
It was as if the Arab oil embargo of 1973 was recurring, exposing America’s dependence on foreign oil. But crude oil is an integral part of our lives.
We make plastics and fabric from it. It powers our cars, lubricates our engines and transmissions. It runs our diesel engines in trucks, locomotives and ships.
It’s from oil that we get fertilizer for the food we consume. It’s jet fuel for aviation.
In short, we can’t live without it. If the oil spigot were to suddenly run dry the economy would come to a near halt.
Most people couldn’t get to their jobs because of the distance we commute every workday. Food and raw material that U.S. companies import for stores and factories wouldn’t be available.
Finished goods from factories that U.S. companies built overseas to take advantage of cheap labor and lower taxes wouldn’t get to market here or elsewhere. Farmers in America wouldn’t have the fertilizer to ensure bumper crops.
Kids couldn’t go to school because the buses wouldn’t have the fuel they need to go. Schools, businesses and homes heated with oil would stay cold.
Even some generators that power companies use for electricity would remain idle. Fortunately oil prices are very low now.
But if the price of oil jumped like the sign on the service station indicated, the cost of all the things we take for granted as being relatively cheap also would spike, changing life as we know it and our consumption habits. That’s what occurred after the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s.
The speed limit on highways was pulled down from 70 mph to 55 mph. People were asked to conserve energy in other ways.
Conservation became a national concern.
People adjusted again in 1980. But the price of gasoline stayed fairly stable until 2000 when it jumped to an average of $1.51.
That seems lower than what today’s cost, but adjusted for inflation, today’s price is below the 59 cents per gallon in 1976.
And if some tragic global event were to occur, sending the price for a gallon of gas close to $10 as that service station sign fluke said, Americans would adjust again. That’s what we do.
We’re seeing change already in the increase of General Motors, Nissan and other carmakers producing more rechargeable cars. It’s evident in the number of hybrid vehicles on the road now.
Motorcycle and motor scooter use has increased, and more people are biking and using mass transit. It is a different way of life from what existed 40 years ago.
But it is more sustainable and better for the planet even if paying more at the pump returns to bite us in the wallet once more.