Ship of Fools

Where the price of gas comes home to roost



Anybody out there noticing anything odd about what happens when you head down to the gas station these days? You know, that sudden feeling of lightness that comes about after you look at the unbelievable prices on the pump and realize your wallet has just been lightened by about twice what it used to cost to fill the same tank only a year ago. Instead of perceiving the ways in which skyrocketing energy prices will significantly and negatively affect our society, our so-called leaders seem intent on “staying the course”—straight into the maw of the coming disaster.

Just this week, for instance, front-page articles in Montana’s local newspapers are lamenting what the cost of fuel is doing to school budgets. The obvious rise in diesel has thrown school busing costs right off the charts. And in Montana, busing kids to school from ever farther distances as sprawl fills our valleys is a reality no one can deny. Where will the new tax revenue to make up for the sudden price gap between budgeted costs and the unexpectedly high prices come from?

Lurking only a few short months down the line is what will happen this winter, when prices for natural gas are predicted to follow a meteoric rise similar to what we are now experiencing with petroleum. Considering that natural gas is used to heat most of our schools, what happens then?

Traditionally, schools turn to “emergency” tax levies to fill such budget gaps. But this time the budget gap is not a school-specific problem—it’s an across-the-board societal nightmare for which we are almost totally unprepared.

As anyone will readily tell you, getting around in Montana takes some driving. We think almost nothing—or at least, we used to think almost nothing—of driving several hundred miles to see relatives or friends, spend a weekend off hunting, camping, fishing, skiing—or just to look around at the wonder and splendor of our huge, beautiful state.

But now things are a little different, aren’t they? If you want to jump in that pickup or SUV and toodle off for several hundred miles in each direction, you’d best be stocking up on the moola, because it’s going to cost you plenty just to keep the cylinders firing. Toss on the fifth wheeler, hitch up the boat or fire up the old RV, and the mileage goes down and down while the costs go up and up.

Meanwhile, back at the old homestead, the rumors from the energy arena say natural gas is jumping upward toward $10 a decatherm—about twice what it used to cost—and may go higher come winter’s demand. So, Montanans, take a look at last winter’s utility bill and do the math. I guarantee you, it won’t be pretty.

Nor do energy costs exist in a vacuum. Every time you spend twice what it used to cost to fill your rig, that’s money you don’t have to spend on other things—be they necessities or luxuries. When you take two twenties (or three or four) out of the old wallet at the gas pump, that means you won’t be spending those twenties anywhere else. Not for medicine, not for movies, not for eating out or partying on. That money is gone to the bottomless pit of the energy corporations that are running this country under the corrupt leadership of George W. Bush, and it ain’t coming back.

Unfortunately, the ripple effect will go outward through all the societal sectors. Even more unfortunate is the effect on Montanans, thanks to our geographic isolation and long, harsh winters. Anything that comes into our state, from food to manufactured goods to fertilizer, will have to make up for inflated transportation costs at the check-out stand. Anything that goes out of our state will likewise wind up costing Montanans more to ship, creating a competitive disadvantage because of our distance from major markets.

As an added reality, we can expect that Montana’s distance from the tourists who flood the state during the summer will also be a factor in our future economy. Given the sticker shock for filling up at the pump these days, driving a big RV across the Great Plains for a couple days just to get to Montana for a week’s vacation begins to look less than attractive, if not downright foolish.

Now, let’s factor in that ever-present reality: Montana’s incredibly low per-capita income. Just last week there was an article on what a great place Montana is to do business, because people will work for so little here. But what happens when you try to stretch those scarce dollars to cover the rising cost of everything you need just to survive? The sad truth is that for far too many Montanans, our minimal incomes will simply not be able to keep up with the demands being placed upon us. Many will have to make the choice between heating and eating, between taking the kids to the doctor or paying the utility bill—let alone voting for new school levies.

Which brings us right back to “staying the course.” The grim truth is that many, if not most, of the problems brought on by skyrocketing fuel prices are firmly rooted in George W. Bush’s wars of aggression throughout the petroleum-producing countries of the world. He has destabilized world energy markets through his blundering foreign policy, and while that’s been great for his cronies in the energy business, it’s crippling for nearly everyone else.

Sooner rather than later, our politicians are going to have to start leading by rejecting Bush’s foolish, consumption-heavy policies, and demanding an immediate reduction in our insane level of international aggression and defense spending.

But so far, realistic political leadership is as rare as $1.19/gal. gas. Our ship of fools blunders on blindly through the fog—and the reef lies just ahead.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


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