Why Gas-outs don’t work

Every so often I get a chain e-mail exhorting me to teach Big Oil a lesson by not buying gas on this day or that day. Since I only fill up 2-3 times a month, this is hardly an effort. However, lately I have done some thinking about this and have come to the conclusion that gas-outs simply don’t work.

Firstly, only a subset of the population has access to e-mail, and many of those don’t read all of their e-mail. Of those who do, some disregard it, and many of the others don’t need to fill-up on that particular day.

Secondly, a gas-out does not change behavior. A gas-out on Wednesday just means higher sales on Tuesday and Thursday. To put it bluntly, we do not consume any less gas. Big oil thinks in Quarters. A bad day bothers them not at all.

Let’s take this to its logical conclusion, shall we? Suppose that a national gas-out is arranged for next Wednesday. What would happen? As I said before, sales on Tuesday and Thursday would be up by about 50%, so as far as Big Oil is concerned it would be a zero-sum equation.

Well, not quite… many Gas stations would close that day, and most of their staff would still get paid. Which hurts the individual store managers. Big Oil looks on and chuckles quietly to themselves as the almighty consumer flexes his muscles like the proverbial ninety-eight-pound weakling.

So what would hurt these bozos? In the short term, the only thing that would upset them is a drop in sales. If Mr and Mrs America downsize from their two-ton SUVs to small, light vehicles that use less fuel, sales would drop. Scooters would be even better, but some of us need a car, and others are too much in love with the comfort level of a car to expose themselves to elements and risk.

However, even if America downsized, that would not solve the problem. Big Oil has gotten used to more than more than a Billion dollars a week in profits (2005 profits were $64Bn. Horrifying, isn’t it?), and they are not likely to want to settle for less. Over the long term they would simply raise prices to compensate. If everyone drove fuel-efficient vehicles, gas would soon be $10/gallon.

The Government can also help, by requiring realistic MPG ratings rather than the overly optimistic guesses that we currently have, and getting rid of the CAFE mileage standards loopholes that SUVs and Trucks currently enjoy. A foreign policy that makes enemies out of half of the world’s oil producers does not exactly help, either.

What really scares the Crude out of Big Oil is consumers saying “no” and walking away. This is why they are pushing hybrids (which use Gas) and Hydrogen (which will require filling stations), and why they (along with the Auto Industry, who are terrified of the idea of maintenance-free vehicles) fought the electric car until they killed it.

At the moment, we cannot say “no” to buying gas. Until then, moving our purchases around will not help any more than paying off all of your Credit Cards with a HELOC will change your spending habits.

Now Reading: Pandora’s Star, by Peter F. Hamilton

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