Gas prices spike, and American motorists rumble with anger, frustration

Long before the coming of the internal combustion engine, Route 11 was a pioneer track known as the Great Wagon Road. Eventually the interstate highway stole the long-distance traffic, and Route 11 became a byway, with a few holdover filling stations that look as if they didn’t get the memo.

The old Pure station here has a single island with three pumps. From a cave-like chamber in the back of the office emerges Tim Vaught, 51, a leathery fellow who has pumped gas for decades.

Vaught keeps an eye on the High Point Truckstop across the street. The High Point raised its price for unleaded regular to $3.75 early Monday afternoon. Vaught held at $3.69 for a few hours and then cranked it up to $3.75. “I can’t stay down long,” he says. Even a difference of six cents could create a stampede on his business and drain his 10,000-gallon tank dry.

Every time gas prices soar, Americans get a reminder of how dependent we are on oil, how vulnerable to soaring prices and how hard it has been to change our ways. Motorists are angry and a little mystified. Gas prices seem to go up when no one’s looking, and for no obvious reason. A gallon of regular unleaded cost $3.82 on average nationwide Thursday, up 31 cents in the past month, according to AAA’s price survey. A gallon of diesel was going for $4.12.

At the filling stations, drivers feel powerless.

“You don’t have a choice. Someone’s got a gun to your head,” said Jack Zdziera, 65, a West Virginian who drove into Virginia to get the lower-priced gas at the Flying J truck stop north of Winchester.

Like the ’70s in some ways

It has been 39 years since the first of the 1970s oil shocks. The fuel efficiency is much better now. Americans get far more productivity per barrel of oil. There are a couple of million hybrids on the road and a smattering of electric cars. And yet in many ways, it still looks like the 1970s out there. The transportation sector of the economy remains almost entirely beholden to petroleum, much of it imported from unfriendly countries.

This technological conundrum has long-term solutions, potentially, and short-term political implications. Higher gas prices function like an instant tax hike, as visible as the spinning numbers on the Pure station’s old-fashioned pumps.

President Obama may have limited control over gas prices, which are highly sensitive to the fluctuations in the global price of oil, but the Republicans see an opportunity here. They blame Obama for not approving construction of the Keystone pipeline, which would bring Canadian crude to Gulf Coast refineries. Newt Gingrich made the promise of $2.50-per-gallon gas part of his stump speech. Polls show Obama’s approval ratings moving in the opposite direction of gas prices.

“Fire the president!” suggested Glenn Wolfe, 88, who was putting $100 worth of gas into his 38-foot motor home at the Flying J. It gets eight miles to the gallon, he said.

Tim Vaught at the Pure station blames Wall Street. “What really hurts the gas prices is the stock market,” he says. “Speculators.”

Just down the road, in an idling big rig parked behind a rest stop, truck driver Bill Coleman of Georgia said the high gas prices aren’t Obama’s fault: “He can’t affect it one way or the other. That’s the truth. He’s not the one over there buying the oil.”

Buying oil from unfriendly nations galls Crystal Kagey, 30, who was filling her Nissan Versa (32 sensible miles to the gallon) at a Gulf station in Stephens City. “We buy oil from Iraq and places over there, but we’re at war with them,” she said. “I think, personally, everything should be made in America. We should support our own country.”

For all the talk of going green, this remains an economy dependent upon fossil fuels, something anyone can see in the Shenandoah Valley, where Interstate 81 serves as a speedway for an endless convoy of 18-wheelers and the truck stops are the size of small towns. Even your basic crossroads filling station can have as many as 20 pumps and glow in the country night like a magnificent temple of gasoline.

Witness what happened Monday: A motorist in Stephens City had a medical problem, apparently, as he was driving his ’89 Chevy pickup down Route 11, pulling a trailer holding four cows and a donkey. According to the detailed account in the Winchester Star, the motorist veered off the road, hit a parked ’91 Plymouth, a ’95 Nissan pickup and, some minutes later, a ’00 Volkswagen and a ’94 Oldsmobile, which in turn hit a ’04 Prius, which then hit a ’99 Ford truck. The Chevy pickup exploded into flames. No one was seriously hurt.

The tale includes that one hybrid, but otherwise isn’t exactly a great moment in the history of the Green Economy.

“I’m getting better gas mileage, but I’m still burning the same fuel,” said Stuart Will, an environmental consultant popping into the palatial Sheetz at the corner of routes 50 and 340 east of Winchester.

‘The transition is happening’

The transportation sector has been using corn-based ethanol as an additive to gasoline. The administration has also pushed through tougher fuel-efficiency standards. But oil will probably be the dominant source of transportation fuel for “at least another generation or so,” said Bill Day, spokesman for Valero, the nation’s largest independent refining company.

“The transition is happening, and it’s happening as rapidly as it possibly can, but that rate is kind of slow. Probably too slow for the people who think we should have been off petroleum fuel by now,” Day said.

“It is deja vu all over again,” said Robbie Diamond, president of the advocacy group Securing America’s Future Energy. Diamond’s organization favors a shift to electricity for passenger travel and liquefied natural gas for long-distance heavy-duty hauling.

“You’re totally dependent on one commodity for the transportation sector,” Diamond said. “There’s about 2 million hybrids on the road in America. It’s taken us 12 years to get there. There are approximately 240 million other vehicles.”

Lynne Wheaton, 39, a homemaker from Charles Town, W.Va., said the gas prices have changed her daily life. She doesn’t go out as much. She rarely shops.

What does she think of green energy? “I think we give it really great lip service,” she said.

People could drive something smaller, maybe. But Ed Gray, 62, a builder filling his ‘97 Dodge Ram 1500 V-8 pickup at the Flying J, scoffs at the idea of driving one of these cars that looks like, as he puts it, a “pregnant roller skate.”

“I can’t be running around in a Volkswagen picking up lumber,” he said. “I got to have my big vehicle.”

And consider the case of Corey Sarvis, 36, an Army staff sergeant stopping at a Sunoco station off I-66 in Manassas. Sarvis just got home from Iraq after his third tour of duty. He drives a Ford Explorer and likes to be elevated, high off the road. He’s the one driving so fast he’s just a blur. It’s instinct at this point.

“When something hits me, I’m up high, and I’m safe,” he said. “Not too much can happen when you’re driving fast.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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