Cumberland Times-News

April 26, 2008

How can we handle these skyrocketing fuel costs?

Bob Doyle, Columnist

What can we do?

More so than any other country, Americans love to travel in their personal vehicles. We own 30 percent of the world’s vehicles while we have 4.5 percent of the world’s population. Our country uses 25 percent of the world’s petroleum, of which two-thirds is imported.

The cost of gasoline in America is about half that in Europe, primarily because of the difference in taxes (in some countries, taxes are more than half of the cost of the gasoline). For our passenger vehicles and light trucks, our average miles per gallon is 16.7, with the average licensed U.S. driver covering 15,000 miles per year.

Of our new personal vehicles sold each year, cars make up half and trucks, SUV’s and vans the remainder. In this area, parking lots reveal that two-thirds of the vehicles are SUV’s and light trucks. Presently, the amount of petroleum produced each day has remained steady for over 32 months at 84 million barrels with little surplus capacity. This lack of extra capacity means that if there is an interruption in oil from one of the key oil producing countries, prices are likely to shoot up as demands remains constant while supply shrinks.

Since the first oil well in Titusville, Pa., in 1859, humans have extracted a trillion barrels of petroleum. Conservative estimates suggest that there’s about that amount of petroleum in existing reserves. (We are at the peak of the oil supply curve as the production of petroleum has been fixed for nearly three years.) Few significant discoveries of conventional oil have been made in the past few decades.

At our present rate of consumption, we will extract our second trillion barrels in only 33 years! If the cost of petroleum rises only 10 percent a year, the price will double every seven years! So by 2015, petroleum will cost $230 per barrel! 2022 will see petroleum at nearly $500 per barrel. Then by 2029, the price will be in the vicinity of $1000 per barrel! If the price of gasoline grows proportionately, then you can expect gasoline in the United States to be about $25 per gallon in 2029; this is the same price that some of us in small vehicles fill up gas tanks every week at current prices.

What reasonable steps can be taken to reduce our gasoline consumption with our current vehicles?

Recall that only 24 years ago, the national speed limit was set at 55 miles an hour, which lasted until 1995. As most vehicles get their best miles per gallon around 50 miles per hour, this speed reduction would reduce our gasoline consumption along highways by about 10 percent. The lower speeds would also save lives, as speeds upon collision would be reduced; also drivers would have better control of their vehicles at lower speeds.

A second possibility would be to improve our present car engines for higher efficiency. With lower speed limits for highway driving, why not reduce the number of cylinders in personal vehicles? A V8 (eight cylinders) engine could be reduced to a V6, saving fuel with two less cylinders having to be fueled. Likewise a V6 (six cylinders) engine could be reduced to a four-cylinder engine.

A third possibility would be to reward drivers carrying two or more passengers with reserved closer parking slots near businesses, malls, and schools. This would reward those in car pools for work and school as well as those taking friends and family members shopping.

A fourth possibility would be free public transit for seniors and any minor family members traveling with them. So Grandpa and/or Grandma and Grandchildren could visit the mall, doctors, dentists or grocery stores more easily. This is a fair exchange as seniors continue to support the schools even after their children have long left the school system. (It also applies to seniors who never had children.)

May sky sights

The planet Mercury will put on its best dusk appearance in 2008 from late April through the third week of May. Look low in the west northwest as it gets dark. Early in May, Mercury appears near the Pleiades or Seven Sisters in Taurus. The planet Mars is higher up in the western dusk, passing into Cancer in early May. On May 22, Mars will enter the Beehive star cluster of Cancer, appearing close to its stars the next few nights. In early May, the planet Saturn appears near the bright star Regulus of Leo.

At the end of May, the very bright planet Jupiter can be seen low in the east southeast at midnight.

Mars, Saturn and Jupiter shine steadily in contrast to the bright stars. (Mercury appears so close to the horizon that its light may quiver due to heat waves coming from the ground.)

The best time to see the moon’s craters will be on May 11, when it appears half full. The Cumberland Astronomy Club will host National Astronomy Day at the Frostburg State Planetarium on Saturday evening on May 10. May’s full moon will be on the evening of May 19-20.

This is the last Sunday for “Animal Sky Stories” at the Frostburg State Planetarium with free Sunday public programs at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Tawes Hall. At about 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., I give tours of the Compton Science Center Exploratorium just across the street from Tawes Hall. All of our presentations are free and open to all interested. Call (301) 687-7799 for a free bookmark which has a small map of the FSU showing Tawes Hall, Compton Center and where to park. Next Sunday begins a new Public Program called “Report on Planet Earth” for May at the same above times.

Bob Doyle invites comments and questions from readers; his email is rdoyle@frostburg.edu .