Last week's post about the incongruity of high gasoline prices in oil-rich Alaska torqued at least one Alaskan.
Where does your gasoline come from, torqued Alaskan asked yours truly, with a scolding undertone that people who use gasoline shouldn't air hypocritical criticisms about the drawbacks of producing more domestic oil.
Well, since the question was asked, a significant fraction of the gasoline that I buy comes from Alaska, given that I live in the Pacific Northwest market. One can never tell for sure, however, where each hydrocarbon molecule sitting in my buggy originated. Some of those molecules came from Canada. Others hail from Southeast Asia. Since they don't come with country-of-origin labels, there is no way to tell which came from where.
Which brings us to the sequel of last week's story about the workings of the gasoline market.
Off and on, there have been calls for "country of origin" labels on gasoline pumps. Usually, those calls are loudest when prices spike upward and/or one of our oil trading partners has vexed us yet again.
There is a tantalizing model in the food business. Cruise through your grocery store's produce section and you'll see helpful country-of-origin labels required by federal farm legislation. Those bananas were shipped from Ecuador. The red, ripe tomatoes were picked in Mexico. That box of blueberries took a long boat ride from Chile.
Suppose you could pull up to the pump and see labels showing you where gasoline comes from?
Wouldn't it be helpful to know whether you're subsidizing glowering petro despots like Hugo Chavez, he of the red shirt, or Vladimir Putin, he of no shirt?
It won't happen. Oil companies point out that given the way the gasoline business works, it would be impractical to slap an accurate label on a pump that said, for example, "Refined from Saudi Arabian crude oil."
The reality is that the hydrocarbon molecules coursing into your tank at each fill-up come from hither and yon. Many refineries accept oil from both domestic and foreign sources, and those sources may vary day by day.
Second, gasoline from different refineries typically is mixed together as the fuel sloshes through pipelines on its way to bulk terminals, where it is loaded into tanker trucks for delivery to retail stations.
What might be workable, however, would be labels that give consumers a general idea of where oil consumed in the U.S. originates, broken down by country, and where the biggest reserves are, so consumers know where it's likely to come from in the future if we continue with business as usual.
It would be relatively easy to display such information in pie graphs that could be stuck on pumps. The graphs could show in living color the global trouble spots and dysfunctional regimes with which the U.S. is likely to be entangled if we continue running on the oil dependence treadmill.
As long as we pin our energy future on oil, we'll be playing a game in which unreliable or unfriendly countries hold the high cards.
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