Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What If Gas Costs $10 A Gallon?

Forget pizza delivery. And cheap airfares. And bottled water. In fact, forget a way of life that looks much like today's. But would that be so bad?

Here are some likely effects:

>> Consumer spending on eating out, clothing, electronics, vacations and other little luxuries would fall sharply. A Nielsen study found that even at recent gas prices, 41% of consumers were eating out less. In total, 18% of those surveyed were cutting spending to a "great degree." That would bruise companies such as Applebee's, Macy's, Gap, Best Buy and others. But discount retailers, particularly those selling food and gas, could do relatively well. Think Costco, Wal-Mart and McDonald's.

>> We'd see "a lot of parked planes," says Bill Swelbar, an air transport engineer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The U.S. airline industry pays out $465 million in fuel costs for every $1 rise in oil. At $350-a-barrel oil, the industry would pay more than $100 billion extra, almost as much as last year's total airfare sales. Even if airlines ratcheted up fares 50%, half of their airplanes would be grounded because they'd be too expensive to fly, Swelbar reckons.

>> Many independent truckers, who pay for their own fuel, would go bankrupt as their costs soared and shippers switched to barges and trains. Taxis and FedEx would be strictly for the well-heeled. And home pizza deliveries would cease. Pizza delivery drivers also pay for their own gas. "It'd be brutal," says Joseph Miller, an assistant manager at a Domino's Pizza in Seattle. "I would think we wouldn't have any drivers."

>> Food prices could jump by a third or more, experts estimate. About 80 cents of the $4.50 retail cost of a box of cornflakes goes to transport it, says Dan Basse, the president of AgResource, a Chicago research company. On top of that, there's the cost of fertilizers to grow the corn and diesel for farm equipment. In 2005, transportation and energy made up 8.5% of all retail food costs, but energy was far cheaper then. As $10 gas pushed up food prices, pinched consumers would give up pricey fresh meat and vegetables for cheap pastas and oils. Ranchers and dairies with energy-hungry milking barns would struggle. And cities might sprout to life as people planted vegetable gardens on their roofs and balconies and in vacant lots.

>> Plastics for appliances, packaging, pacemakers and myriad other products would jump in price as the natural gas that plastic is made with rose in value alongside oil. Bill Wood, the president of Mountaintop Economics and Research in Massachusetts, says shoppers would have a choice: "Paper or paper?" Small plastic bottles of water would disappear. Glass and metal containers would make a comeback. And recycling would explode. Families might even have nine bins in the hall to separate their trash, as they do in Japan, where consumer recycling tops 90%.

>> As drivers began to switch to 100-mile-per-gallon plug-in hybrid cars (already expected to launch by 2010), the electricity grid could come under strain. Theoretically, if everyone had one and plugged it in at night, the grid could handle 84% of the nation's car fleet. But to avoid the risk of city brownouts, the grid capacity would have to rise. Solar, wave and wind power would ramp up. Giant solar thermal power plants, which use mirrors to concentrate the sun's energy, would be built. But in the rush to get power, we'd probably also step up the use of cheap, dirty coal (50% of our electricity generation now). Even nuclear power (21%) could be considered anew.

>> Resistance to drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off California would shrink. Environmentalists might stand their ground. But as James Williams, an energy economist for WTRG Economics in Arkansas, says, "Let's put it this way: Y'all wanna drive?" Oil reserves in both areas are thought to be more than 10 billion barrels, double the proven reserves in Texas. That would help feed America's 21-million-barrel-a-day appetite.

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