Don't hoard gas

September 04, 2005

TOPPING OFF is so tempting. The economical little car used for commuting has three-quarters of a tank of gas. But what if local service stations run out? How will you get to work?

And the family van, sitting there in the driveway with a tank not even half full. Sure, it doesn't get used much, partly because it guzzles like crazy. But if gas prices are reaching $3.50 a gallon now, how bad might they be next week or next month? Doesn't it make sense to store as much as you can?

No, say the folks who study such things. Supplies locally and nationally will remain adequate, and prices will ultimately moderate if drivers can resist the temptation to hoard.

"Don't buy gas if you don't need it," urged President Bush, in his first-ever appeal for national sacrifice.

And don't believe rumors, either, like the one that whipped through Maryland on Friday with the bogus claim that the state was about to shut all gas stations down. Rumors of shortage quickly become self-fulfilling prophecies. Fear, not shortage, is the enemy.

Americans made it through terrorist attacks, several years so far of war in Iraq and a mushrooming budget deficit without being asked to give up much more than convenience at airports. But a gas panic could be a really ugly business.

Those old enough to remember the oil crisis of the 1970s recall what it was like to plan your life around waiting in gas lines or driving in search of an open station. It doesn't have to be like that this time.

Gasoline supplies were adequate when Hurricane Katrina hit. Sure, there are long-term issues about refinery capacity and global demand. Enough gasoline was in place here, though, to meet the needs of a peak summer weekend. After Labor Day, demand traditionally drops off sharply, so if people go about their normal routines, supply will be even better.

The two pipelines from the storm-battered Gulf Coast that feed the Eastern United States are operating at reduced capacity. But federal and state requirements for reformulated gasoline, so-called boutique mixes designed to burn more cleanly, have been waived at least through September. That should ease short-term supply problems caused by Katrina.

Hoarding is the only real threat because gasoline supplies are taken from service stations where they are available to everyone and parked in driveways where those who run out of gas can't get it.

The reward for restraint might be that a return of normality drives the price back down, at least a little. Perhaps not next week, or even next month. But toward the end of the year. Meanwhile, slow down, relax and conserve where possible. Oil companies don't need any more of your money.

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