While I stand at the pump deciding whether my windshield needs cleaning or to wait until after the next monsoon storm, I am often reminded that gauging the reasons gasoline prices go up or down is no science.
The usual scapegoat is the volatile political situation in the Middle East that seems to be never-ending. But even that can’t be counted on. Sometimes I think the station employees choose their price-sign numbers from discarded lottery tickets they sold that day.
In July prices went up because, the analysts (who are these guys?) explained, unrest in Egypt was causing oil producers to be nervous about transporting their shipments.
Since then, Egypt verges on civil war as hundreds of people are dying in the streets. Meanwhile, as the White House is mulling a military strike on Syria over what officials say is the growing evidence of the use of nerve gas on the civilian population, guess what?
As you’ve been reading in the Tribune this week, East Valley gas prices have fallen in each of the last five weeks. In August. You know, the month of the year when all the experts say everyone is driving to Yosemite, the height of the so-called “summer driving season.”
Yep. Even now, Labor Day weekend, when millions of us are traveling. (Or, if you’re like me, doing long-ignored housework.)
We often hear in the media of perennial explanations for things like this, even though it’s worth considering whether they truly explain anything.
Not only is “summer driving season” apparently not as much of a factor in demand driving up prices, but if anything is changing as the result of 21st century life, it’s got to be this particular phenomenon. Most local kids’ summer vacations have been reduced from three months to two, and most East Valley public schools are back in session before Aug. 10. Something many of us had to wait until college to enjoy – spring break, then fall break – is now part of a first-grader’s academic calendar.
Parents can now ask for time off in the fall and spring in addition to in the summer. As a result, vacation driving is spreading out over the course of the year. And yet we still have “summer driving season.”
When the Valley was smaller, road construction projects were often scheduled during the summer months because winter visitors had a much greater impact on the total number of vehicles on the streets. Fewer overall vehicles meant smaller traffic jams and shorter delays. Today tourists comprise a much smaller piece of the traffic pie in this much larger metropolitan area and it no longer matters when they set up the orange cones and barricades.
It’s amusing to hear the radio and TV traffic reporters in early August (and early January) as they talk about freeway traffic increasing because school is back in session. The number of people who use freeways to drive their children to school is hardly significant. (Where do their kids attend? Casa Grande?) College students getting to class, maybe, but the traffic reporters start talking about this when elementary and high schools open rather than the colleges a few weeks later.
This year’s Gulf Coast hurricane season has been relatively quiet, thank goodness. But let a storm simply start forming a few thousand miles away and pump prices frequently reflect it. (And why is it that prices never fall as fast as they rise?) At least, they could wait until a storm actually causes a decision to keep tankers from transporting oil, right?
As much as we can pick apart the official explanations from the industry, no one else seems to have any better predictor other than some oil investor wanting to make a few more bucks and feeling he or she can get away with it. Responding to political pressure, occasionally the government promises to look into it, but it never seems to amount to anything. People who comment in the media (take me, for instance) don’t have any reliable formulas, either. All we know is what we are told doesn’t explain things well at all, but that doesn’t stop the analysts.
Are prices dropping because we are driving less? Are our cars being maintained better to save money on gas? Or – and this one I haven’t heard anywhere else – is the resurgence of consumer spending on new vehicles in the past year or so resulting in more new cars on the road, which naturally perform better on average than older ones?
Yes, I’ve dragged out my crystal ball now. You can, too. You can talk about uncertainty regarding your bank account after you fill up your gas tank. You can be an oil analyst! Well, minus the nice suits they wear, perhaps.
Read Tribune contributing columnist Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here each weekend. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.