Jay Evensen: $5-a-gallon gas? Would that make us act seriously?

Published: Sunday, Feb. 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

My ears perked up last week when the former president of Shell Oil said he expects gasoline to reach $5 a gallon by 2012.

You don't need to be Captain Kirk to know not to boldly go where no man has gone before when it comes to numbers at the pump. Funny things happen when you start hearing talk like that. People begin changing their perspectives.

It's kind of like the difference between noticing the hot water doesn't last as long as it once did and noticing the water heater is leaking. That's the difference between putting up with an annoyance and demanding action.

People also start acting strangely. Politicians furrow their brows. They start rallying together for solutions, not because they suddenly believe in drilling for oil, but because angry voters with driver licenses don't care about liberal or conservative notions at the pump. Those voters do, however, care deeply when pumps automatically shut off after debit cards reach $49.99, as happened frequently three years ago when gas was a mere $4 a gallon.

Raise that by a dollar and see how much tiger you get in your tank.

Three years ago, Utah congressman Rob Bishop visited the Deseret News editorial board and compared gas prices to Pearl Harbor. It was one of those things, he said, that would unite the nation's leaders in a cause. It would bring things that were considered politically off-limits, such as offshore drilling or extracting oil from shale in Utah and Colorado, to the discussion.

And for a while, he was right. Both parties started using war terms to talk about domestic drilling; but then the bubble burst; the enemy retreated. Within weeks, prices were well below $2 a gallon, as if Emperor Hirohito has just apologized and paid reparations, and energy issues have been somewhere on a back burner ever since.

Until now, that is. The former Shell president, John Hofmeister, wouldn't have raised so much concern, except that his remarks coincided with a noticeable increase at the pump. As I write this, prices in Utah range from $3.35 a gallon in St. George to $2.82 in Ogden.

But his $5 prediction was the high end among experts last week. An analyst with the Oil Price Information Service said we might get to $5 a gallon during this decade, but not next year. Meanwhile, the government's own Energy Information Administration said prices at the pump should be about $3.15 this year, going to $3.30 in 2012, on average.

They can't all be right, of course. But the difference between $3.30 and $5 would be the difference between Pearl Harbor and just another crime wave on the wrong side of town.

That means it's the difference between a serious national energy strategy and just more political posturing about trying to get 1 million electric cars on the road.

Until the nation gets serious about a long-term strategy involving both more drilling for oil at home and a serious nudging of private markets toward natural gas and electric alternatives, we will continue to alternate between all-out crisis mode and intermittent relief — a scale many people believe will be tipped toward crisis mode as demand for oil grows in places like China and the U.S. economy improves.

Utah has much to gain from a sound strategy. That's why the state is ground zero right now for a lawsuit between the oil and gas industry and the Interior Department over several leases that were auctioned, paid for and then suddenly revoked by the government.

The nation isn't in a crisis mode right now, of course. Even $3.35-a-gallon in St. George won't jar people into manning anti-aircraft guns or calling their tea party representatives.

But that's all the reason to get ahead of the trouble. If the most-likely wrong prediction of a former oil executive were to be a rallying cry, we would all be better off for it.

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com

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