Jumping Jack Flash has no Gas Gas Gas

Hello y’all from Asheville, North Carolina.

Asheville is a nice town near the Smoky Mountains (they’re actually the Great Smoky Mountains, but as they’re not that high that seems hyperbole). It’s early fall, and soon the leaf chasers will be out in force to marvel at the astonishing sight of reds, oranges, auburns, ochres and other such colo(u)rs adorning the hillsides of this beautiful part of the country.

They won’t be starting this weekend though. Why not? No-one has any petrol.

Coming between an American and his/her car is like coming between a bear and her cubs – which they know a bit about in these parts. In a society so spectacularly motor-dependent as the US, anything that affects their mobility is big news. All summer, it’s been the price of gas that has been triggering fear and loathing. Four dollars a gallon is the psychological barrier that many stations have had to crash through already thanks to the general rise in a barrel of oil.

Then along came a couple of hurricanes and everything turned a little bit nasty. Hurricane Gustav that just missed New Orleans a few weeks ago had a minor impact, but Hurricane Ike that struck Galveston, Texas a couple of weeks later has had a huge effect. Galveston is where a lot of oil is refined and then distributed, especially – it so happens – to this part of the country.

Merrily oblivious to this I drove up to Asheville from Columbia, South Carolina on Sunday knowing that I’d have to fill up at some point en route. As my Ford Focus told me I had about 60 miles left in the tank I thought it would be a good time to do just that, so pulled off the interstate and into a Shell station. All the pumps were busy, so I just parked the car, bought a coffee and planned to swing round as soon as one was empty. Then I noticed a line was forming. Well, I wasn’t too interested in waiting in line, so I drove on.

The next gas station was some local chain. They had no gas. None. Nada. Zip.

I drove on. I was down to about 20 miles in the tank and the number was falling much faster than the actual miles covered. I’d cut my speed a bit, but this was still the interstate. I came off at what was in fact my exit and headed for the BP station. There was a line of at least three cars at every pump, but this time I just joined it.

Replete with gas I made it to Asheville. That evening on CNN the headline news was about the gas shortages across the south-east of the country. By Monday evening that had become shortages predominantly in North Carolina. By Tuesday evening it seemed to be centred on Asheville. There’s not much gas here now. People are panic buying. The lines at some gas stations are apparently two miles long! People are running out while they wait in line. Fights are breaking out at pumps.

There is but one topic of conversation in town. Not the price any more, but the sheer availability of the stuff. In a depressed economy, people are anxious to keep the jobs they have but if they can’t get to work they might not get paid. The mayor is working to persuade the wholesale suppliers that do have gas to distribute to other gas stations. One local firm is planning to send a tanker all the way down to Charleston to come back with some – which can only mean prices go up even more. Asheville is a liberal little town but public transport here is limited to say the least. And then of course there’s the SUV issue. While I waited in line at the BP station on Sunday I was one of the few vehicles that was not a pick-up or an SUV. No doubt some of those people needed a larger vehicle – in rural parts a pick-up may be a very sensible choice. But ALL of them? I think we know the point I’m trying to make.

It’s buggering up my trip a bit. I hadn’t reckoned on how slow the roads into the Smokies would be (Americans don’t seem that great at driving round bends or up/down hills), and of course ups and downs and braking and air conditioning in the car (which you still need – I know, I turned mine off for a while and it wasn’t pleasant) all consume more gas. I used about a third of a tank yesterday. Predictions vary as to when the crisis will ease, but it could be a few more days. I don’t really want to get up at 2am in order to not wait 2 hours for enough gas to get me back to Atlanta.

If you don’t want to invest in public transport – how about bigger incentives to buy fuel efficient cars, or scooters for those who are just popping around town during the day. If America wants to reduce its dependency on oil (and of course it’s far from clear that it does), it needs to be more inventive in how it goes about trying to reduce its dependency on the car. Right now, another hurricane or a freak refinery explosion could more or less cripple a part of the world’s richest country that is right now, just about staggering on.

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