Last week, I stopped at one of the two stations in town to get some gas for my old farm pickup truck. The price of regular unleaded at the pump was just under $1.35 per gallon. A sign on the door informed me that for each gallon, almost 59 cents goes to taxes; 40 cents to the federal government and nearly 19 cents to the State of Connecticut. The gas itself costs less than 77 cents per gallon.
Just inside the station's door, the front page of a newspaper carried a story about the high price of milk. Whole milk now sells for $2.65 a gallon in Connecticut. That didn't seem too high to me. We're happy to pay the equivalent of $3.60 a gallon plus deposit at Field View Farm in Orange for delicious local milk in glass bottles. As I paid for the gas, the woman in line behind me put a plastic jug of water from Maine down on the counter. Its price was $1.50 per gallon.
I walked out of the store wondering how gasoline could possibly be so inexpensive. Although the water contains no energy, it is necessary for life. It is also delicious and abundant from many springs and wells in our town.
I used to have a few cows, so I know what it takes to produce milk. When you get right down to it, milk's made out of air, water, and sunlight with the help of green plants and cows. There are still some farms in town which produce milk, even though a few years back, there was such a surplus that the government paid several large local farms to sell off their herds.
A gallon of gasoline, however, is not so easy to come by. First, it takes hundreds of millions of years, with the proper conditions, to create oil. We have to find it (more often than not in some far away desert or beneath the ocean), bring it up from deep underground, and transport it half way around the world to a refinery. There the oil is elaborately processed into gasoline which travels by pipeline to the boat which then delivers it to New Haven Harbor, for example. Eventually, a tank truck brings it to our town.
A gallon of gasoline contains enough energy to move an efficient car 40 miles. This is equivalent to the energy it takes to keep a human being going for between 10 and 12 days. One gallon of milk contains enough calories to power a human being for one day, although it is not a complete food.
Last year when gasoline cost about $1.20 a gallon, it was less expensive than it has ever been, after adjustment for inflation. Now gas is priced at less than half of what people pay in most other countries.
Several recent studies warn of serious problems in the near future with the world's oil supply. With oil-use increasing all over the planet, experts think that in less than a decade, we will have used over half of the world's realistically recoverable supply of this fossil fuel, and that most of the oil that does remain will be in OPEC countries. Both of these prospects are worrisome.
We know that our profligate gasoline-use pollutes the air that we breathe. It is widely believed that the waste products of gasoline combustion are affecting the earth's climate. These changes are probably connected to the increasing frequency and severity of hurricanes, floods, fires and other damaging weather events. Cheap gasoline is definitely implicated in the destruction of small towns everywhere, as highways run over them, and as suburban stores with large asphalt parking lots siphon off local business with low-cost, imported products.
Of course, inexpensive gasoline encourages more gasoline use--bigger cars, more sport-utility and recreational vehicles, longer commutes, wider roads, bigger stores and on and on. But, we're setting ourselves up for some serious environmental and geopolitical problems.
Prudence and wisdom suggest that we plan to get along with less rather than more gasoline.
That's hard to do when one of the most energy-packed and damaging substances on earth costs less per gallon than water.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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