We called it “The Gas War”. As you can imagine, in a town small enough to count the number of existing gas stations and still have room to delicately grab a chicken wing, the entrance to a new chain of regional convenience stores , aggressively close to another similar establishment, could only generate healthy competition.
Nationally, gasoline prices were already quite low. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a gallon typically cost you between a dollar and a dollar fifty.
In a rural community, however, with a shiny new franchise gas station a block away from what we assumed was its hated competitor – no internet forums available to facilitate collaborative speculation on such things at the time, though that Michael’s Café would do in a pinch – there seemed to be no limit to lower gas prices.
A palpable sense of dizziness swept through the city when it dipped below a dollar. The eyes of the old farmers lit up. The price broke through the 90 cent mark. Motorheads coat the sidewalk with rubber. The parents’ abandoned Astro vans, filled with teenagers, flew from town to town with reckless abandon, looking for nothing more urgent than a new fast-food drive-thru.
The fall in the price of gas has finally slowed down. Now he was absolutely crawling down, one cent at a time. The lowest I can remember was a paltry 87 cents per gallon.
Of course, 87 cents meant a little different then than it does today. Just then, I had landed my first job that paid by the hour, a penny above the minimum rate, at $5.25 (I had been a paperboy long before that, but it paid by bagged and discarded newspaper, with no regard for the considerable time it took to run away from dogs, argue with disgruntled subscribers, etc.). Although the pay isn’t particularly high, you can also walk into a McDonald’s with a $10 bill, plus some change to cover the tax, and walk out with 10 double cheeseburgers.
Aside from the many nuances needed to compare then to now in any meaningful way, I can assure you that even 20 years ago, 87 cents for a gallon of gas was cheap.
And, you know, looking at the rise in gasoline prices today, with the average price likely to hit a new all-time high at five dollars a gallon soon, I can’t help but think that premium gasoline cheap wasn’t really good for anything.
People thought they could drive a lot more, of course. Many more of them than today ended up dying on the highways because of it. People who didn’t need a pickup truck or an SUV grabbed it. Sure, these road-going monstrosities were gas-guzzling, way too expensive compared to more reasonable vehicles, and had a tendency to roll around corners. But who cared, with gasoline that cheap?!
Nobody thought of another attempt to try electric vehicles, with the cheap gas flowing. We have been coughing up greenhouse gases, most of us, then, without caring. Hardly anyone cashed in on the money they were saving on gas; savings rates approached historic lows.
Low gas prices did not prevent 9/11, nor the twin wars that followed (although oil dependence arguably played a large role in precipitating our many conflicts that broke out in the Middle East) . Ditto for the housing crisis, the Great Recession and all the other tumultuous disasters that have plagued our country since the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In fact, looking back on gas prices of 87 cents per gallon, I think the best thing about them was the melodrama that unfolded at a time when smartphones were still pretty much science- fiction.
No one likes to pay extra for anything. It’s good – hey, this country was founded on not wanting to pay extra for things. But maybe when it comes to gas, at least, before literally burning it, people should stop and think for a second about whether it’s worth it.
High gas prices are an incentive to stop burning so much gas. Even at five dollars a gallon, that might not necessarily be such a bad thing.
Jonathan Wolf is a civil litigator and author of Your debt-free JD (affiliate link). He taught legal writing, wrote for a wide variety of publications, and made both his business and his pleasure of financial and scientific knowledge. Any opinions he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization he is affiliated with. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at [email protected].