The L.E.D. gas price flip sign at a gas station just outside Rosendale reads $4.49 a gallon. On Route 28 headed out to the Catskills, another sign reads $4.55. A day later, all four stations on Broadway in Kingston have decided on $4.39, a popular number in the Town of Ulster, too.
Jack Barello of Marbletown remembers that only two weeks before gas was 88 cents cheaper.
“I saw on the internet how Russia had invaded Ukraine, and I thought, Well, here we go,” he said. “It was after midnight, but I got out of bed to drive down to the station and fuel up, first one car, then drove back and took the other one. Even though it was late, I texted some folks to do the same. I felt a little stupid for about a week .… Not so much any more.”
Over at the Sunrise bagel shop in Kingston, a group of older men could be heard troubleshooting the rising gas prices over morning coffee.
“These gas prices are Biden’s fault,” said one. “This is ridiculous. Putin would have never invaded Ukraine if Trump was still president.”
Asked to talk further, the man clammed up and stared defiantly.
Howard Moreno, a retired airplane parts heat-treater out in San Diego, says he’s seeing prices there above five dollars”.
“How much are prices in New York?” he asks over the telephone. “You’re still doing better. I remember we had the whole even-and-odd-days gas rationing back in the 1970s. I don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
Let’s make a deal
For four months in 1973-74, member countries of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum exporting Countries) imposed an embargo against the United States, restricting the sales of crude oil. The result was rationing of gasoline supplies across the country. States like California and New Jersey utilized a system based on calendar dates and license-plate numbers to indicate when one could fill up the gas tank.
Another time. Another war. Another crisis demonstrating our dependence on gasoline.
On Tuesday March 8, president Joe Biden simplified the calculus some by announcing a total ban of Russian crude oil, gas and coal. There was little doubt which direction gas prices would go.
“This is a step that we’re taking to inflict further pain on Putin,” said Biden, “but there will be costs as well here in the United States.”
To make up the difference in barrels, the United States is looking to Venezuela. Still haunted by the ghost of Hugo Chavez, the country’s crude oil supplies remain nationalized. Nicolás Maduro, still president, accuses the United States of supporting a coup against his government in 2019.
How it is that the United States finds itself having to scramble for a deal with an ideological opponent should surprise no one.
Located overwhelmingly in Texas, California and Louisiana, America’s oil refineries are outdated. The quality of crude oil that the United States produces domestically, either from drilling or from fracking, is such that the cost of refining for the national market is more expensive than to send it abroad internationally for profit.
Conversely, the Russian crude oil which the United States depends upon is of a quality for which the refineries were originally optimized to handle. And without it, upgrades would be required at a price so high as to give the industry pause.
The bottom lines of the oil companies won’t be affected if they stay the course. They and their shareholders will reap the windfall of inflated prices produced by the scarcity of gasoline.
“We get the same oil”
Consider the Lukoil station in West Hurley. Currently charging $4.29 a gallon, the gas station and auto repair shop are owned and operated for the past 23 years by Harold Frisbie.
Lukoil is one of the largest oil and gas companies, providing something like two percent of the world market. A multinational energy corporation headquartered in Moscow, its name is carried by about 230 gas stations throughout New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York State.
The Lukoil brand logo is unpopular presently, Frisbie, who wears a mustache and speaks with a curt demeanor, doesn’t seem bothered.
“Business is better than ever,” he said. “And anyway, I own the gas station, not Lukoil. There was a bunch of bad press in the beginning, but I’m still selling the same amount of gas every day. More, actually, because when people come through, now everyone is filling up their tanks.”
His auto repair garage stays busy, too.
“What people don’t realize, all the gas stations, we get the same oil,” he said. “Everybody selling gas is getting it from Port Renssalaer out of Albany. There’s only a couple trucking companies, Terpening and ARG. Just branded differently. There used to be more trucks, but now they just sub the deliveries out.”
Different gas stations. Same gasoline.
It’s an addiction
Americans are now together experiencing a pain in their pocketbooks which can be characterized as a form of withdrawal, that terrible feeling experienced by one who has become so reliant upon a given chemical substance that the absence of it creates an unhappy mix of anxiety and physical pain. The only solution to escape the pain, in the minds of the afflicted, is to obtain more of the chemicals that caused the condition in the first place. It is a vicious cycle, and it produces intense and unexpected behaviors.
“Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies,” said writer Kurt Vonnegut. “We were rolling drunk on petroleum.”
As long as the energy companies can shift the blame for the prices onto the politicians tasked with running the government, if they can buy enough time before the increasingly deranged American public turns their wrath and attention upon them, it’s possible they can replace enough product from another source, like Venezuela, and the prices will settle back down.
The business of business will resume. And the cognitive dissonance of purchasing our gasoline from other countries with whom we disagree with ideologically will hardly be a problem.
Until the next time our supply runs dry.