A look into our near future:
And the Gas Lines Grow
Monday, Jul. 09, 1979
But the trucker strike wanes
Just a week or two earlier, the gas lines had somehow seemed temporary. It was an irritating inconvenience to spend hours waiting for what used to be taken for granted, but somebody would eventually fix things. More gas would appear, as it had before, and all would be well. Last week it became clear that nobody was fixing things very fast. The lines got longer, and the prices went up.
Most drivers, of course, remained as quietly idle as their engines while they waited as long as four or five hours, at least in the Northeast, to fill their tanks. They read, listened to radios or cassettes, sometimes watched a small TV set installed in their cars. Some chatted with other motorists or bought food and drink from enterprising kids working the lines. But growing anger and frustration all too often erupted in name calling, fistfights, occasional stabbings and shootings. While a gas-station owner in Freemansburg, Pa., rushed to help his bleeding wife, who had been accidentally struck by a car waiting in line, other motorists filled up their tanks and drove off without paying. In Levittown, Pa., in an outbreak originally caused by truckers demonstrating against high diesel fuel prices, some 2,000 motorists and thrill-seekers clashed with the police in three days of rioting. Police arrested nearly 200. Local officials declared a state of emergency and enforced a curfew that prohibited more than five people's getting together on the streets after 9 p.m. Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh helped restore order by bringing another 500,000 gal. of gas into the area and imposing a statewide odd-even purchase system. Said Bristol Town ship Police Chief Richard Templeton: "We're sitting on a powder keg."
Like the horse rustlers of an earlier era, gas thieves were on the prowl. Usually they siphoned off gas; occasionally they took the whole car. Some resorted to ingenious ruses. Two men were arrested in Miami after police discovered that a floor board had been cut out of their dilapidated van. Underneath was $5,000 worth of equipment, including intake hoses, battery-operated pumps and a 350-gal. storage tank. Apparently the pair would drive into a station, casually park over an unlocked underground tank and help themselves. On a smaller scale, thieves faced another kind of retribution. In the process of siphoning gas, they often ended up swallowing some of the gas that gushed forth. Cases of gas poisoning were up all over the country. In the Houston-Galveston area, they had jumped to ten a day from just one a year ago.
One major element in the public anger was the fact that many gas stations have taken to closing on weekends, and for much of the week as well. These unscheduled and unpredictable closings (involving as many as 90% of stations in the New York City area) added considerably to drivers' anxiety about getting gas, and therefore to the wasteful practice of tank-topping—buying a few gallons to get a full tank. They also added to drivers' suspicion that the industry was manipulating them, their cars and their pocketbooks.
To combat the closings, many states have issued orders to stations to stay open on either Saturday or Sunday, and Gulf Oil Corp. instructed 350 of its 800 company-owned stations to provide gas in 26 states east of the Rockies on Sundays starting July 1. But most owners are reluctant to obey. After they have used up their gas allocation, they say, they see no need to stick around. Besides, if they stay open on weekends, they will be swamped with customers and quickly sell out their allocation, leaving none for regular customers during the week. More repair work also occurs on weekdays. Says Wayne Konitchek, a spokesman for Connecticut's gasoline dealers: "I wouldn't close on a Tuesday to open on a Sunday when I can't subsidize the opening by repair work."
California seems to have solved the problem of gas closings by taking more drastic action than other states. After officials discovered that the odd-even purchase arrangement was not working because 90% of the stations shut down on weekends, they invoked a four-year-old law that gave them emergency powers in case of a severe energy shortage. Said Richard Maullin, chairman of the California energy commission: "It was definitely time to legislate by decree." Stations with odd-numbered pump registrations were required to stay open on Saturday, those with even numbers on Sundays. Police handed out citations to station owners who failed to comply, and a few were given a $500 fine. The weekend openings made the crucial psychological difference. Motorists stopped driving so much to search for gas.
The nation's fuel shortage was partly relieved when the rancorous independent truckers' strike showed signs of waning. Though it continued to cause trouble in some areas, it was apparently running out of gas in others. In Tennessee, truckers making deliveries were still the target of vandals and snipers. One driver was informed over his CB radio that he was losing a right wheel. When he stepped out to have a look, he was shot and wounded. Because of that and other incidents, Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander declared an energy emergency, put state troopers on a twelve-hour day and ordered them to escort trucks, especially those carrying gasoline and diesel fuel. Troopers forced strikers blocking truck stops to move their rigs.
Elsewhere, the economic facts of life were making it harder for the truckers to stay idle. Monthly payments for their rigs are as high as $2,000, more than the cost of most home mortgages. They stand to lose a lot of money by refusing to work, and they do not have a strike fund. They also ran into a tough reaction from local governments. Admits Mac Vernon, a spokesman for the Independent Truckers Association: "Local officials are getting injunctions to stop picketing and blockading, and some companies are saying, 'You either run or you're fired.' "
The Carter Administration has eased some of the cumbersome federal regulations that discriminate against independent truckers. Last week the Interstate Commerce Commission increased from 6% to 7% the surcharge it requires trucking firms to pay the owner-operators they hire. The Government urged states to allow heavier loads so that the truckers can make more money. Vice President Walter Mondale made a plea to the strikers to "get this country moving again." Scoffed Mike Parkhurst, president of the ITA: "Tomorrow the ice is going to trot out another little carrot on the end of a stick. It will still be unacceptable."
Though the truckers vowed to starve the country into submission to achieve their demands, they so far have fallen considerably short of that goal. By and large, food has continued to roll across the nation's highways, but there have been widespread losses and threats of shortages. In California, thousands of acres of ripe lettuce and potatoes were plowed under for lack of trucks to ship them east, a loss that is calculated at $15 million to $25 million. In Florida some farmers face ruin unless 2,000 truckers can be found to ship $50 million in produce to Northern markets. An estimated 45% of the state's $30 million watermelon crop has been spoiled. Produce brokers are offering up to 35% above normal pay to anyone willing to haul produce, and about 90% of the Southern harvest is being moved. Says Jack Gilchrist of the Georgia department of agriculture: "We were right on the edge of catastrophe when things changed for us. They are improving every day."
Red meat has been held up by a truck shortage in Midwestern beef states like Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota. In Detroit, Frederick & Herrud, a meat processor, was forced to shut down its hog-slaughtering facility and lay off 900 workers because no hogs were arriving. Normally the plant butchers 16,000 hogs a week. Other meat-plant workers were laid off in Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
By week's end, however, meat was moving again in most parts of the country.
With President Carter off in Asia all week, Washington seemed a city without leadership, but Congress was anxious to provide some sense of forward movement. When Democratic Representative Bill Moorhead of Pennsylvania introduced a bill last January to produce 500,000 bbl. a day in synthetic fuels by 1985, he won little support; but when the gas lines began to form, as Moorhead put it, they "ignited the bill." Almost overnight, he found he had 170 cosponsors, including many Republicans.
The House Democratic leadership treated the bill as its own. Speaker Tip O'Neill summoned his lieutenants, and they agreed to escalate Moorhead's bill to the equivalent of 2 million bbl. a day by the end of the next decade. In a meeting with Energy Boss James Schlesinger and White House Domestic Affairs Adviser Stu Eizenstadt just before the Tokyo summit, House Majority Leader Jim Wright announced: "We have decided that we're going to promote several energy initiatives. We are going to have a number of arrows in our quiver to get us down the road." At the Tokyo summit, Schlesinger persuaded the President to go along. Then he phoned Moorhead: "The Administration is all for it now. I told them they would be foolish to stand in the way of this because they would be run over." The House then approved the measure, 368 to 25.
Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson has his own provision for synthetic fuels in his comprehensive energy bill, and the Senate is in almost as much of a hurry as the House. Jackson's bill is co-sponsored by all but five of the 18 members of the Energy Committee and has broad backing in the full Senate. Says Jackson: "We're going to get a bill out and pass it before the August recess commences, even if we have to meet at 5 in the morning."
For all the pressure behind it, the synthetic-fuel program has not won unanimous applause. Badger Energy Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., for example, has spent two years and a $2 million grant from the Department of Energy to produce a design for converting coal into unleaded gasoline, but it puts development ten years away. Under the best of circumstances, a facility that could do this would be capable of converting coal into not much more than 150,000 bbl. of gasoline a day.
There are other problems. Some experts believe that the creation of synthetic fuel would cause large-scale air pollution. Others argue that considerable amounts of energy would be needed for the process of producing new energy.
"There's a tendency to go overboard," cautioned William Proxmire, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. "I'm concerned about the ultimate cost. I think we have moved much too precipitously without the kind of information that we ought to have."
As gas lines lengthen, as tempers grow shorter, as the economy suffers, the search for alternative fuels seems to promise no remedy soon.