February 15, 2012

Gasoline Alley

Never content with only a superficial grasp of the superficial, I have continued to delve into this fascinating question presented by the New America, namely, whether Americans are continuing to have fun fun fun now that Daddy took your T-Bird away.

I presume that we are. I found the discussion of daily gasoline usage (assuming that gasoline deliveries to gas stations are a close proxy for actual usage, which I assume they are, given the "just in time" nature of gasoline deliveries, as with most inventory in Consumer America) on the Depressoblogs a little confusing. Since the arguments found in such places as "Of Two Minds" and Mish's site tend to goal seek in their explications (most Depressoblogs fall all over themselves to make sure that things are portrayed as badly as humanly possible), you have to go to original sources to double check. You know, if you want credibility, always my watchword. Which takes one to the site maintained by the Energy Information Administration, and although this is a federal government site, I trust it because the Department of Energy is headed up by Steven Chu, a brilliant man with great ideas who unfortunately works for the Obama Administration, one of the dullest and least innovative presidencies in the history of the Republic. One of my very first blogs talked about Dr. Chu's overview lecture of the way forward in alternative energy, delivered at a China-America symposium at Wheeler Hall on the Berkeley campus in 2006. Switch grass, not corn, should be the basis of the ethanol fuel industry, and he laid it all out, taking into account all of the usual arguments about energy invested versus energy returned, etc., and pointing out that switch grass has the huge advantages of being a kind of hardy weed which replenishes the soil as it dies back and requiring far less in the way of (petroleum based) inputs. Plus, unlike corn, it does not divert the food supply, and it grows in places where you probably would not think to grow anything else.

So of course with the Obama Administration we have never heard anything much about switch grass or cellulosic production of ethanol. Steven Chu is a kind of Nobel prop to stand in the background while Obama thunders on about an "energy independent" America, presumably by fracking the hell out of Pennsylvania and drawing up all that natural gas trapped in shale rock.

A slight digression. What I have found in looking at the gasoline usage figures (http://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=pet&s=mgfupus2&f=m) is that gasoline usage, indeed, is declining. Rather than cherry pick data as the Depressos do, it's probably more reasonable to use a high point in a high-driving month (I'm looking at August, 2006, the height of the bubble years) and compare it to August, 2011. Converting the barrel figures to gallons (42 gallons per barrel), what I see is that usage has declined over these five years from about 40 million gallons per day to about 37 million gallons per day, or about an 8% drop. The usage has continued to fall since August, 2011, but this definitely supports the idea that there is a trend toward lower gasoline consumption, if not as dramatic as that produced by cherry-picking starting and ending points. I'm not sure at all how the Depressos came up with 40%, unless you started with the highest use ever and compared it to a current reading from the dead of winter, which is not a realistic way to compute the difference, and it also suggests that fuel efficiency is playing a much bigger role than that portrayed by the Gloom & Doom Industry.

The Depressos (this would include Zerohedge and numerous other websites which rejoice in America's imminent collapse) are mainly interested in using these trendlines to counter any argument that America is making any progress whatsoever toward emerging from the current depression. While I tend to agree with these sites that America has not really gotten anywhere (in a real sense, as opposed to papering over a busted nation with various money-conjuration tricks), I do think that this tendency toward accelerating conservation, deliberate or not, is a damn good development in the larger scheme of things.

And the news that makes it all even better is that apparently the decline in gasoline usage is matched by similar declines in electricity, natural gas and fuel oil consumption. The electricity drop-off is no doubt partly attributable to decisions by Americans across the country, under heavy financial pressure, to discontinue cable TV and high-speed internet and various other electricity-sucking gizmos. Also, to turn off the lights when you're not in the room. Whatever, it's worth remembering that Americans have been wanton, unconscionable, egregious (I need one more adjective)...unconscionable (it was so good the first time) wasters of energy, at levels much higher than actually necessary to maintain our standard of living, such as it now is. We tend to use about twice as much energy per capita as a country such as Germany, and if you've spent any time there, I trust you would agree that the American standard of living is not twice as high. Maybe half as good, would be more accurate.

It's all a move in the right direction, if you ask me. Maybe the next step would involve a cessation of the endless purchasing of unnecessary junk, which I surmise has to do with an attempt to distract ourselves from the environmental wasteland we've created around us. The world looks so pretty in those glowing, hi-def pictures on your iPad, but it would be better yet if the world actually looked that way in an unmediated way. You know, in Reality.

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