Over a barrel

Pulling into a gas station can bring on a schizophrenic experience. No, not the regular-or-supreme dilemma—it’s not that easy.

Tom the Tightwad can roll into the corner gas station cursing the memory of John D. Rockefeller and grumble while filling the tank and emptying the wallet. Geez, can it go any higher? Then, like a gusher, I spew some venom on the poor schlub behind the counter: “Can we please just turn the country over to Big Oil and be done with it?” Let it run amok all over the world, as long as I don’t see $3 a gallon.

Then, on those famous Sacramento summer days when the purple haze starts rotting the lungs of children with asthma, Tom the Bleeding Wallet rolls into a gas station thinking $4 a gallon is the answer. The car-crazy California public needs the government to step in and help stop the oozing sprawl that feeds our addiction to gasoline. Damn it, if we can’t help ourselves through voluntary conservation, then it’s time for Big Government to tax gasoline another dollar a gallon and put that revenue into health care, public transit and clean cars. That would put an undue burden on the poor who must drive, but this has to stop somewhere.

Perhaps more competition is the answer; let the market work. But the market is not working, especially for independent gas-station owners (see “Agasination”).

Because of a merger wave, there is a concentration of power in the oil industry. There are fewer big oil companies owning fewer refineries, which means less competition. Some refineries also give the lowest wholesale price to stations owned and operated by the oil company that owns the refinery.

Though rapid price spikes smell like collusion, repeated investigations have failed to turn up the smoking gun that would prove price fixing. The only thing left is to cut down on driving and continue to swear at Rockefeller.