The delicate exhaust from the Prius filtered heavenly as the behemoths shouldering it belched thick fumes through double-barrel chrome.
Such an odd, yet common, arrangement of vehicles sitting at that Twin Cities traffic signal during an afternoon rush. That mouse of a car was crowded by growling masses of metal to its right and left, each easily able to haul 8 people and 10,000 pounds in payload. Both were carrying just the drivers and featured no trailers. Their wide frames looked hungry and sassy at the same time. The monsters looked down at the trembling hatchback as if its glass slipper had long-since fallen off and nobody was searching to find its owner.
It wasn’t that long ago that most of us were dreading the $4 per gallon of gas that was flattening our wallets. Truckers were being forced out of business. Automakers were scrambling to produce electric or hybrid cars that were smaller and stingy on gas. And commuters were carpooling.
But then it all changed--again. U.S. oil reserves were much deeper than anyone knew. OPEC continued to pump out at robust levels and a lack of environmental catastrophes kept oil prices remarkably low. And prices at the pump dropped, and dropped and dropped.
Before you knew it, big was fashionable again. We stretched our legs. We loaded up the “fam” for trips to the countryside, cabin country and anywhere else our imagination prodded.
By some estimates, global crude oil supplies will carry us nearly to the next century at current consumption levels. The world swallowed roughly 100 million barrels of crude per day in 2018, according to World Population Review. The world’s greatest oil deposits, according to some sources, suggest Venezuela is sitting on 301 billion barrels. For those of us buying cars right now, it’s easy to seek out the big vehicles again because gas is affordable and who wouldn’t want to be in a bigger vehicle? They feel safer. They often provide a better vantage of the roadway. And having the extra space when you need it is wonderful. Many of us must be having the same thoughts since trucks and SUVs made up 68 percent of sales in 2018.
Yet, it’s hard to ignore the cycles we’ve experienced in this nation in the last several decades. There have been five significant spikes in crude oil prices in the last five decades. From 1929-73 gas prices were 39 cents per gallon or less. In 1979 gas prices jumped to 86 cents per gallon, more than double the amount drivers had been paying just six years earlier. By 1981 they had climbed to $1.31. But then they started to relax again, dropping to 86 cents per gallon by 1986. Prices leveled to around $1.15 from 1990 to ’95. But by 2000 they jumped again to $1.51. By 2005 we were paying $2.30 per gallon. By 2012 we had climbed all the way to $3.64. But since then we have started the slow descent once again and today stand at $2.49 in Minnesota.
What and how we drive has been influenced by each of these big spikes. The last big leap, which put us over $3 per gallon for gas, truly ramped up efforts by vehicle manufacturers to start us down a path of reduced reliance on oil. By some estimates, electric vehicles will make up 65 percent of light duty vehicle sales by 2050, just 30 years from now. The International Energy Agency indicates that electric car sales exceeded 3 million worldwide in 2018. In the U.S. there are about 1 million EV cars on the road, with sales topping 280,000 in 2017, a 75 percent increase over 2016 sales.
In the metro we can all see the evidence of less reliance on oil with the ongoing construction of the Southwest Light Rail, stretching from Eden Prairie in the west metro to the heart of Minneapolis, where it will connect with the blue and green lines to reach the airport and St. Paul. In 2018 there were a combined 24.9 million rides provided on the two rails. Southwest Light Rail will help to reduce our reliance on oil when it opens in 2023. Although it comes with a hefty price tag, exceeding $2 billion, it is physical proof that times are changing.
I followed the Prius for a couple miles, before noticing my 4x4’s fuel gauge was due for another fill. I turned left to feed the beast. The Prius? It ignored the gas station and disappeared over the next hill.
My dad once proclaimed he’d never pay more than $1 for a gallon of gas. That was a long time ago and we’ve been exposed to many lessons since then.
But will we truly learn from history? Our vision of the past is often obscured by the flash of the present.
As individuals only we can decide how we will consume. We can be wise today or lament tomorrow.
Keith Anderson is director of news for Adams Publishing of East Central Minnesota.