The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Ralph Couey

April 30, 2011

RALPH COUEY | Putting pump prices in perspective

— Gasoline prices have boomed.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you don’t need me to tell you this. And since everything else we buy is delivered by something burning either gas or diesel, those prices have gone up as well.

Up until now, watching this annual trampoline dance as gas prices bob up and down has been an annoyance. But now, things are getting critical. People are going to have to make hard choices in the coming months as household budgets stretch even tighter. And if things don’t improve by winter, there’s going to be some very cold houses around here.

The only people who seem to be benefiting are those lucky individuals who went long on gas futures and those who have oil company stocks prominently placed in their investment portfolios. The rest of us got stuck with the bill.

I paid a visit to the Energy Information Agency website. Part of the Energy Department, these are the folks who tabulate a wealth of statistical data about energy prices across the nation. I pulled up the chart of retail gasoline prices (regular grade, reformulated), published April 25th, which shows the national average price for regular gas at $4.01 per gallon.

A year ago, April 26, 2010, regular was $2.92, and going back to April 27, 2009, the price was $2.11.

So, in two years, the price has gone from $2.11 to $4.01. That’s a 90 percent increase. To give you an idea of what that means, let’s say you bought a house in April 2009 and paid (purely for argument’s sake) $100,000. If your home value tracked along with gasoline, it would be worth $190,000 today. We would  all be saying, “What foreclosure crisis?”

A gallon of milk in 2009 ran you $2.69.

Today, it’s $2.99, about an 11 percent bump.

But if milk was gasoline, that same gallon would now cost $5.12. Ground beef, which has gone from $3.99 per pound to $4.28 would now be $7.60.

In 2009, it cost 42 cents to mail a letter. If stamps were fossil fuel, a regular letter would now set you back about 80 cents.

And in 2009, median household income was $49,777. I couldn’t find figures for 2011, but I highly doubt that it has gone up to the level of $95,000, which it would be if we were being paid in gasoline.

There are a lot of reasons for the zoom in pump prices. Increased demand from China, unrest in the oil-producing countries, among other things. Those of a conspiratorial bent are whispering that this is the government’s plot to force us all into electric vehicles.

But as a homeowner, I don’t deal in the “why” as much as the “what.”

Six years ago, I didn’t mind my 30-mile commute to work.

Nor did I complain about driving 80 miles to the church where I am honored to be pastor. (And I’ll still do that. Jesus hung on a cross for me, so the cost of that drive is a cross I’m more than willing to bear.)

But if things continue the way they’ve been going, I’m going to have to re-think that daily drive. That’s 300 miles per week, just going to work. Using that $4 per gallon figure, it’s going to cost me $60 per week. For an entire year, that’s more than $3,000.

Thank goodness I have a motorcycle that gets around 50 miles per gallon. But even the bike is getting expensive to operate.

I have a lot of faith in Jim, Tony and Tim,

so I leave the bike at home when thunder-storms loom in the forecast. (Hailstorm on a motorcycle? Been there. Done that. Hated it.)

But now, perhaps I should be looking into body armor.

I love my house. It’s got style, panache and a wonderful 1920s-period ambiance. But if gas goes beyond $6 per gallon, we’re going to have to move. That is, if we can sell it in this economy.

The U.S. economy is in deep trouble. Again, you don’t need me to tell you that. The International Monetary Fund this week announced the coming end to the “Age of America.” While I’m not that pessimistic, it’s plain that as things get worse, we’re all going to suffer.

And there’s no pill for that kind of pain.

Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.


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