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July Quick Throttle Column

I'm sitting here writing my column for next month, so it's time to post the one from the current issue of Quick Throttle.  All about the obscenely high gas prices we had on the West Coast earlier this summer.   Its been a wonderful couple of weeks weather wise -- perhaps an actual summer here in Seattle for once.   Been out riding a lot and it's been great.
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Summertime.   Time to get the old bike out of the garage and start riding and exploring and enjoying the wind in your face and the sun on your arms, and the vista of the road ahead.   Oh wait, this is the Northwest.   That would be the rain in your face, and the sticky inside of a rain suit, and the splash from a truck ahead of you, right?

Early in June I just finished a twenty-day, 4,400 mile road adventure that stretched from Houston and Galveston, TX, East to New Orleans, and up the Mississippi and through Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and back home to the Northwest.   I love being out on the road for long stretches, and given the distance and climate changes along the way, I’d packed it all – heavy leather, light leather, t-shirts, and sleeveless shirts.  I used up a couple of bottles of sun-screen, and have a very early season biker tan coming along quite nicely.   

The weather for the bulk of the trip was wonderful summer weather – and for the South, not too humid.  It was fantastic riding weather, especially in the mountains of Arkansas around Fort Smith and in the Winding Stair Mountains along the Arkansas/Oklahoma border.  An area worth checking out if you haven’t and can.  I lugged all that extra gear most of the way unused.   

But, I knew I was home though shortly after crossing the Snake River into Washington.  A few things told me that.  First, I had to get out the rain gear.   Eighteen days and 4,200 miles and not a drop of rain.  But the final two-hundred miles?   Rain.  Cold.  Wet.   Welcome to Washington.

I also realized I was back home when I started seeing a plethora of Subarus and Priuses on the road.  I think it’s the “official” car of people in Washington.  I swear that’s all I see in Seattle.   I had an epiphany of sorts somewhere back in Mississippi when I saw (but didn't hear) a Prius sneaking up along side me and it dawned on me that it was the first one I’d seen in days.

But the biggest reason I knew I was home?   Paying $4.59 for premium gas!   Yeah, I’m on a Dyna with a 4.5 gallon tank, so what?  But still, it was quite a sticker shock.   The most I’d paid for gas anywhere along this trip was outside Kansas City, MO, where I paid (hold on to your helmets), $3.88 for premium!   Most of the places I was in I was paying in the $3.40s and $3.50s.

This is ridiculous.   Why on God’s green earth are we up in our little corner of paradise paying the third highest gas prices in the country, behind Hawaii (which is obvious) and California?     Even as I write this month’s column from a hotel in Mid-town Manhattan, the tiny Getty Oil station a few blocks from here has premium at $3.84.   What gives?   This year has been particularly odd – with gas prices in Washington and Oregon rising while the rest of the nation’s prices fell.

New York has a higher gas tax than we do in Washington, but Washington and Oregon the second week in June are ranking third and fourth in highest gas prices.  Washington has the seventh highest gas tax of .375 per gallon.  Oregon is even further down the list at sixteenth place at .31 cents per gallon. Yet Oregon is lock-step behind Washington in prices – only a penny difference on average.  Shouldn’t Oregon be a nickel less than Washington all things being equal?

I know everyone has their own idea about why gas prices are so high, and I’ve heard all the “conspiracy” theories about “collusion” between oil companies.  Or “transportation costs” and “refineries closed for maintenance” and other excuses.  Perhaps there are some elements of truth to those ideas.   I don’t think the natural free market – supply and demand – explains what’s going on here, though.  But I’ll be damned if I’m smart enough to figure it out or figure out what to do about it, and I think that’s what frustrates me and I suspect most drivers.

I do see that our local and national politicians are all trying to capitalize and score political points on the situation to a degree – making statements, and looking like they are rattling cages to get something done.  Washington Senator Maria Cantwell in early June sent out a number of threatening letters, that I’m sure get tossed in the round file at the oil company offices.  She’s even asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into collusion between oil companies to keep West Coast prices artificially high.  Right….that’s gonna be easy to prove.

However, being a free market guy, I would tend to believe that there isn’t enough competition among West Coast refineries, simply because there isn’t enough of them.  So if one goes down, like the one up near Bellingham did, then we are the ones that get screwed.   Why are their so few refineries here?   I think it has something to do with all those folks who drive Priuses and Subarus.  I do.  It’s not the gas they aren’t using, it’s the attitude that most folks driving them have.   They all tend to chant the mantra of no new refineries, no new roads, more transit, lets go hug a tree.

New refineries = more competition = lower prices.  There, that’s my solution.  I’m beginning to think this is probably the reason they have such lower prices in the South and elsewhere.   There are more refineries there because there are fewer environmental types.  They are the ones that tend to drive Priuses and Subarus.  And that attitude is what keeps new refineries from being built here.  You know, now it makes perfect sense why gas was so cheap elsewhere.   There’s hardly any Prius and Subaru drivers.   

Gary can be reached at roadsigns@comcast.net and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com


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