Running on Empty


On Friday, September 19th, 2008, there was no gasoline to
be found in most parts of Nashville Tennessee. The gas pumps sat eerily
abandoned, their nozzles shrouded with plastic bags. The few stations that did
have gas, including the Exxon across the street from our hotel, were surrounded
by lines of panicked motorists that stretched for blocks. Home of the Brave. I
walked over to the station. There was a news van out front. Police and station
staff were directing traffic to and from the pumps and explaining to people
that they couldn’t just turn in because the line started three blocks to the


I was a bit uneasy, because we were to play in Harrodsburg Kentucky the
following night and I wasn’t sure how widespread the gas shortage had become. I
had noticed in the preceding days that some stations in both Athens Georgia and
Chattanooga were out of regular. Was the whole South out of gas? I called an
acquaintance in Bowling Green who said that if I could make it that far I would
have no problem. There was plenty of gas in Kentucky. We had nearly a quarter
tank, just about enough to make Bowling Green.


The next night, from the safety of Kentucky, I googled “Nashville
gas shortage”. Not much came up, mostly blogs from Nashvillians. I didn’t
see any sign of national coverage. The only TV news clip I found was from the
Nashville Fox affiliate. The clip reported some violence including a drive by
shooting in East Nashville, and widespread hoarding. People were topping off
their tanks like okies in the dust bowl. There was a shot of a woman filling a
gallon plastic milk jug with gas and putting it in her car. Real smart. She
didn’t even bother to duct tape the cap. At least she knew to set the jug on
the ground when she filled it so a static charge on the plastic wouldn’t blow
the whole place to Jesus.


Then came a clip of Republican Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn repeating
McCain’s shrill mantra “Drill here, drill now” and blathering on
about how we need to find more oil “under American soil”. I guess she
hasn’t noticed that we are drilling here now, and have been drilling here for
some time. I have cousins who work in the oil field in North Texas and they’re
quite busy these days. They can’t keep up with demand though.  Blackburn also called for increased
refining capacity. She’s right on that one. We do need more refineries, and we
need refineries that can handle the low grade “sour” oils  that we’re mostly finding these days.
It seems that, while we’re still finding plenty of oil, the “light sweet
crude”,  that’s easy and
inexpensive to refine, is growing scarce. The lower grade oils have sulphur
that must be removed and long molecules that must be “cracked” into
shorter pieces to make gasoline. 
There have recently been some promising natural gas discoveries in North
Texas and North Louisiana. Why is no one advocating that we convert cars to run
on natural gas? Some public transportation companies run their buses on natural
gas, so the conversion shouldn’t be that hard. Natural Gas burns clean and
requires minimal refining. Or, of course, we could limit our driving, conserve
gas? Un-American, I guess.


I noticed in one article I read that Knoxville Tennessee had had a
similar shortage the weekend before the Nashville shortage. Interesting, two
major shortages in two Tennessee cities on two consecutive weekends, with
minimal news coverage. No one seemed to know what exactly caused the shortages.
Some theorized that the hurricanes had taken Gulf state refineries off line and
that evacuees had burned up a lot of gas. I know what caused those shortages,
someone at the back end of the pipeline cut off the flow. Maybe the reason for
the shut off was indeed that they had no more gas, but, whatever the reason,
someone had to make a decision to push a button, turn a valve, or key in a
command. Someone decided which town wasn’t going to get their gasoline that
weekend. The result was an interesting social experiment that exposed our
vulnerability. I’m not referring to the vulnerability of our infrastructure,
but rather, the vulnerability of our collective psyche, a much more dangerous
vulnerability. Our hysterical fear of not being able to go where we want when
we want renders us powerless to any force, natural or human, that would attack
the physical infrastructure, and some very unscrupulous politicians are itching
to exploit that fear. You can bet they were taking notes on Nashville.


We think we’ll die if we can’t
drive. Some of us might, but most of us won’t. Pipes can be fixed, rides can be
hitched. We’d better learn to relax. There will be more shortages in the future
and we’ll have to help each other get through them.We’ll have to learn not to
fight over a place in a gas line. We’ll have to quit hoarding and just take
what we need. It’s really the only way.


P.S. In my last blog, in my fumbling attempt to channel H.L. Mencken, I
referred to Chuck’s Fish in Tuscaloosa as a world class restaurant. It isn’t
world class, the flat screen TV’s and SYSCO seasoned fries disqualify it from
that category. And the waiter, when listing the desserts, pronounced Creme
Brulee, “Cream Brulay”. However, the grilled Mahi Mahi was excellent.
So was the Malbec.}


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