Sandy 2 Nov 2012 Brooklyn NY gas line 2
Hurricane Sandy triggered gasoline lines and shortages in New York, New Jersey and in other areas in less than 1 week. How would a sustained disruption in gasoline/diesel affect the U.S. economy and society? And is the nation too dependent on the two fuels?

The first step in any hurricane/storm recovery must and always will be: treating the injured and getting those displaced to shelters, and the U.S. response at the federal, state, and local level has thankfully displayed this historically-effective response.

Hurricane Sandy has been a historic storm: as of Saturday 12 noon EDT, the storm had killed 109 people, may have caused up to $50 billion in damages, and displaced thousands - thousands have had their homes destroyed, with others damaged to the point that the people who occupy them can not live in them until major repairs are completed.

The First Priority: Put Lives Back In Order

Further, every muscle must be exerted – via FEMA, U.S. Department of Housing, and state/local agencies to help those displaced by the storm to rebuild their homes and to put their lives back in order. If necessary – and the initial damage from Hurricane Sandy suggests it is - the U.S. Congress should appropriate additional funds, beyond disaster-area qualification funds - to help home owners and businesses rebuild – and to help cities, counties and states affected by the disaster. Some conservatives in Congress may oppose the appropriations – including low-cost mortgages/loans – but it is a correct and fair response given the scope of the disaster and its beyond-anyone’s-control cause.

Again, the above - putting lives back in order and rebuilding homes and businesses, including electric power restoration - has to be and will be the first response by U.S. public officials.

The second response? Once lives are put back in order and the rebuilding is well underway, the United States can look at “the bigger picture” to address macro and systemic flaws/liabilities that the nation has not addressed.

In other words, if it’s true that a crisis can also represent “an opportunity,” then Hurricane Sandy offers a moment in time to correct a long-standing systemic flaw.

The flaw? The United States’ vulnerability to a sustained gasoline/oil supply disruption.

U.S. Systemic Flaw Leads To Gas Lines…In 3 Days

Effective Saturday at noon EDT, Gov. Chris Christie, R-New Jersey, implemented mandatory, odd-even day, vehicle license plate gas rationing for 12 counties in New Jersey, reported Saturday, and the U.S. Department of Defense set up temporary gas stations in the New York metropolitan area to ease gasoline shortages triggered by the large percent of gas stations taken off-line when they lost electricity. Within three days after Hurricane Sandy’s fierce winds subsided, gas lines not seen since the 1970s (there were two major ones, in 1973-74 and 1979-80), formed across the New York metropolitan area.

Did you catch the implied in that last sentence? Within three days, the private vehicle transportation system - overly dependent on car/trucks thac have gasoline/diesel-powered engines – experienced a crisis.

The crisis didn’t take a month, or a week to form. It took just three days!

Now, to those who live in suburban Kansas City, Mo or Tuscaloosa, Ala., no gas in the New York City area may seem like a distant, irrelevant problem, as far as your daily life is concerned.

Now Multiple The Systemic Flaw Times 1,000 Cities

Well, pull the lens back and look at “the bigger picture” – the macro and systemic flaw:

Imagine another oil supply disruption by any foreign supplier to the U.S. - Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia or Nigeria – for whatever reason, sustained over months. What would happen? It would be the Hurricane Sandy impact multiplied by one thousand.

Within a week after a sustained disruption in gasoline, the nation’s transportation system would grind to a halt, basically. Within a week, few would be able to move in their cars, SUVs and trucks.

But that’s not all: as paralyzing and economy-slowing a gasoline/diesel shortage would be, that’s not the worst of it. Within a couple weeks after the car/truck freeze-up, the nation’s food distribution system would be incapacitated.

In other words, the U.S.’s overdependence on gasoline/diesel means a disruption in gasoline/diesel would quickly lead to a nation where few could move by motor vehicle, and where many would run out of food.

Does it sound like some far-fetched, near-apocalyptic dystopia prediction by conservative/libertarian commentator and former Fox News host Glenn Beck?

Well, in this case Beck’s identification of a systemic flaw is correct. Beck’s solution to avert the problem, however, is wrong.

Beck, like so many conservatives, believes the answer is to increase U.S. oil production – a policy stance made popular by former Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska. with her, “Drill, baby, drill” mantra.

U.S. oil production has increased substantially during the Obama administration,2009-present, aided by new horizontal drilling and fracking technology, but the solution to the U.S.’s systemic risk involving gasoline/diesel is not merely to increase oil/gas production: it’s involves using substantially less gasoline/diesel.

Further, this is not to say that the private vehicle era must end. Quite the contrary: the private vehicle era (cars, SUVs, pick-up trucks) can continue: it just has to be powered by something other than gasoline/diesel. The alternate power sources should be: 1) natural gas, alternate fuels, and electricity.

Alternate fuels probably can never account for more than 30 percent of vehicle power, and curent battery technology – while improved from car batteries a decade ago – still do not have a long enough battery life to be practical for most Americans.

Natural Gas: A Better Fuel

That leaves natural gas. Plentiful, comparatively cheap, cleaner, domestic – natural gas appears to be the most practical, universally-accessible energy form for U.S. private vehicles, at least until battery technology gets to the point where an electirc car can reliably travel 200-250 miles on one charge.

Natural gas has caught-on with fleets (buses, delivery vehicles, cabs, garbage trucks) that return to the same depot to refuel, due to its lower cost compared to gasoline/diesel: in Los Angeles about $2.60 per gallon equivalent for compressed natural gas (CNG) vs $3.70 per gallon for unleaded regular and $3.95 per gallon for diesel, according to Natural gas civilian vehicles have lagged in the United States because the network of natural gas refueling stations is small: there are only about 1,000 natural gas refueling stations that pump CNG, compared to about 120,000 gasoline stations.

Hence, it’s expand the U.S.’s network of natural gas refilling stations – and by extension, natural gas vehicle use by private citizens, we must. The view from here argues Congress should change the tax code to subsidize the construction of natural gas refueling stations – thus speeding the increase in CNG vehicle use.

Meanwhile, natural gas vehicle cost, while still higher than gasoline/diesel-powered vehicles, is declining as economies of scale take effect in CNG vehicle production.

The View From Above

Every muscle must be exerted to help those hurt by Hurricane Sandy to put their lives back in order – rebuilding homes and businesses, and restoring electric power.

After that work is done the United States must address a macro and systemic flaw: the nation must promote as a public policy the use of natural gas and decrease its use of gasoline and diesel. The nation must end its vulnerability to a sustained gasoline/oil disruption. Quite simply: to not do so would keep the nation at risk of widespread food shortages, in a matter of weeks.