Running on Fumes
Twenty miles east of the pleasant Interstate stop of Dunsmuir, 37-year-old McCloud resident Christine Gannon lives in her mountainside house. She estimates that she and her husband are now spending $300 a month on gas for their vehicles and another few hundred on oil for the generators that supply their electricity. Christine recently moved from a job at a hardware store that paid $7.25 an hour to an AmeriCorps position with the McCloud Community Resource Center that pays only marginally more. Her husband, a truck driver for a fuel-delivery company, has an income that fluctuates monthly. The family has health insurance, but it comes with a steep $4,000 annual deductible. They have student loans to pay off, car payments to make, two growing boys to feed. Add in the extra few thousand dollars a year they are now spending on gas, and something's got to give.
"We've had to cut back on entertainment. We've had to cut back on filling the house with groceries and having plenty of snackables," explains Christine. "No vacations. We've had to postpone putting money away to buy a home. It makes me feel like having a decent home and decent life without having to stress constantly and worry--it seems like it's just never going to happen, and dreams and hope and plans, they just don't work out."
In the months leading up to Katrina and Rita, as oil prices rose steadily, pundits kept saying that, in real terms, prices were still lower than their all-time highs in the early 1980s. Not until the $3 gallon was reached would that record really be broken. Moreover, many argued, at least until Katrina shattered the complacency, a vibrant economy was poised to absorb, with minimal suffering, the additional oil costs.
Yet in some remote California communities, prices had spiked well beyond the $3 mark as early as April of this year, and had been heading north for several years--in 2003, as local prices neared the $2.50 mark, residents of Yreka organized letter-writing campaigns and protests against high pump prices in front of the county courthouse, the largest, most symbolically powerful building in town. When I drove to Death Valley this spring along the arid eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountains, towns like Bishop and areas around Mono Lake were already at the $3 level, with local prices driven up by a combination of California's more stringent environmental standards for refined gasoline, pipeline problems in the Southwest, higher gas taxes than in most states and the sheer distances fuel-delivery trucks have to cover in the California wilderness, as well as global oil market factors. By midsummer, according to information generated by the Oil Price Information Service, as well as private websites monitoring county gas prices, a host of other desert and mountain communities had joined the $3 club. And while many parts of the country were seeing $3 gallons in the wake of Katrina, California's remotest regions, beset by long-term high gas prices for reasons having nothing to do with hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, will likely be burdened by high gas prices even if the rest of the country, after the hurricane season ends, returns to short-term "normalcy" and complacency about oil prices. That makes them, says Amy Detrick, a secretary in the county administration office, a harbinger of what's in store for the rest of the country as the world's supply of gasoline gets ever tighter and as price spikes triggered by local supply disruptions in an overstretched market become all too common.
Detrick has started taking the bus to work from the tiny village of Etna. Her daughter, however, doesn't have that option. She works at a Subway restaurant in Yreka, a job that nets her about $300 per week. Getting off work at 9:30 pm, she misses all the buses home and has no choice but to drive the more than thirty miles each way to and from work. Even in her new Honda Civic, bought with help from her parents, that's not far shy of $10 a day in gasoline costs.
"What are you going to do? Not work?" asks Mike Stacher, of McCloud Community Services. "Maybe it'll get to a point where not working is an option." Indeed, earlier this summer, as gasoline prices began hitting record highs, Rosie Kerr's two brothers did both quit their jobs in McCloud. They could no longer afford to drive their pickup trucks the fifty-plus miles each way from their homes in Hornbrook, a small community several miles north of Yreka. It was actually more financially sensible to become unemployed and to join the legion of casual workers picking up local bit work whenever possible. If more residents start making similar decisions, the region's blue-collar backbone could be broken.
That urban and suburban communities--with their affluent professional classes, increasing numbers of status-enhancing (and expensive) hybrid cars and at least partial accessibility to public transit systems--can absorb higher energy prices is not hard to believe. That residents of low-income areas like Siskiyou County could afford to eat the extra $5, $10, then $15, $20, $30 and $40 a week they had to spend on gas this year simply to drive to low-paying jobs in towns like Yreka and Redding, and that they can continue to do so indefinitely, is harder to believe. Indeed, the very fact that some commentators, such as the Cato Institute's Jerry Taylor, so glibly assume (or, at least, assumed pre-Katrina) that an oil price shock can be painlessly absorbed shows just how invisible the country's poor have become to much of its pundit class.