So Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Jay Inslee have asked President Bush to create a task force to investigate possible fraud and price gouging by oil and gas companies. Gasoline averaging $3.50 a gallon is dragging the economy into recession, they said in their letter to the president and its time to get to the bottom of it. Remember back in the 70s when the Legislature created its own Select Committee on the Energy Crisis which traveled all over the state conducting hearings in communities where lines for gasoline were getting longer and longer?
Know how much gas was then? Thirty-five cents a gallon. It wasnt the price then so much as the supply. Actually, wed been warned in 1970 by Secretary of Labor George Shultz of the possibility of a manufactured crisis in the oil industry created by shutting off supplies. It hit in 1973 but nobody could put the finger on exactly why. The industry blamed the shortage on lack of refinery capacity, since most refineries are built outside the U.S. because of tax advantages.
Domestic reserves were running low. Some oil dealers smelled a rat in the arrival of the crisis on the heels of a court decision holding up extension of the Alaska pipeline. One dealer told me the stickler in the decision was the requirement that there had to be at least a 50-foot right of way in the path of the pipeline and in some areas the oil companies just didnt have that.
The shortage also was said to be caused by the oil companies trying to drive out the independent dealers and that they had phased out 170 of their own stations with marginal operations. It was a mystery where the gas went that would have gone to the closed stations. Oil companies said it was still coming in to the state, but not necessarily to the area it formerly went to, thus creating area shortages. Not everybody believed that because Idaho and Oregon were getting plenty of gas while Washington was not.
It was in September 1973, however, that it really hit the fan when Arab oil producers jacked up their prices fourfold and imposed a total ban on sales to the U.S. after outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war. Now gas really got scarce.
There was talk of rationing. When the ferry system just about ran out of diesel fuel, the federal fuel chief refused to grant more because he said ferries were an extension of the highways and you dont give fuel to highways. A new ruling declared ferries a mass transit system.
Gas stations cut short their hours, didnt stay open all night. Federal energy czar William Simon suggested closing all service stations on the weekends and limiting drivers to 10 gallons a week. Since I live 40 miles from my then job in town, that would have limited me to working Monday to Wednesday.
If that wasnt bad enough, British Columbia doubled its natural gas price and Premier Dave Barrett warned us to control our greed and selfishness. Nice neighbor. Things improved in 1974 when the Arabs lifted their ban on sales to the U.S. The Alaska pipeline and offshore drilling resumed and things got better. But by 1977, the price had gone to 60 cents a gallon.
Anyway, I remember those days very well. I was fortunate in that I worked for a newspaper which was guaranteed gas for its employees at a nearby station. But I often got low on gas when I wasnt in that vicinity. And I will never forget the times I had waited in line for some time only to see the station owner put a sign on the back of the car in front of me that read, Last car for gas.
Adele Ferguson can be reached at P.O. Box 69, Hansville, WA 98340.
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