Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Higher Priced Fuel and Lowering Balloons: A Rambling Media Analysis

Gas is basically $4.00 a gallon. Only two more dollars to go until my dream goal of six bucks.

I'd like to thank the Albuquerque Journal's John Fleck for being just about the only sane person on the planet. I don't know Mr. Fleck (I think I saw him once from a distance), but his continuing stories and outreach on the impact of dramatically higher gas prices is ahead of a dull, myopic journalistic curve, it seems to me. I can also see his lead being followed by others at the Journal now with stories on how higher diesel prices are impacting school buses and APS.

As an aside, I just want to point out that the Journal website is still the worst website in the history of websites. I did a bit of looking around at newspaper sites with similar circulation (take Columbia, South Carolina for instance) and could not find one 1/1,000th as lousy as www.abqjournal.com. And no, it's not simply because of the "pay or loud, bizarrely colored IT'Z Pizza ad" thing. Although that really sucks, and might even suck more than the "guy in robe eating fruit loops attacked by ABQ Journal sports staff" ad that ran for like 43 months in a row.

Currently, and for some time now, a significant portion of the Journal page has been taken up with a "Comic Strip Shootout" in which readers are supposed to weigh in on whether they prefer "Hi and Lois" or "Get Fuzzy". "Hi and Lois"? "Hi and Lois" is to "Internet" as "Papyrus" is to "Amazon Kindle". It so perfectly fits the Journal page that it devotes several inches to a comic strip with a 1954 sensibility.

But I digress.

Having crossed its 1981 high (adjusted for inflation), gas/diesel prices have thrown us into a scary new world here. Or, if you're like me and have a perverse fascination with the human reaction to wildly changing stimuli, a rather interesting situation. Yes, I know higher fuel prices will have a horrible impact. I'm especially concerned about the impact higher fuel prices will have on the abject poor in "third world countries".

Still, this is a problem (fossil fuel addiction) that we humans should have dealt with a long, long time ago. And now that "developing" countries like China & India are moving up in the hydrocarbon world there's certainly no time like the present to have us some six dollar a gallon gasoline. Make diesel seven bucks...why not?

But in my rather obsessive perusal of news sources, both 'Net and otherwise, I just don't see an amount of news coverage on the subject commensurate with the impact 4/5/6 buck gasoline is going to have both here and abroad. Sure, there's coverage of the price itself, and little interviews with SUV owner Jimbo and how mad he is that it costs $2.7 million to fill up his gas tank. We see dutiful coverage of politicians inadequate knee-jerk reactions that drilling in ANWR or offshore is gonna solve the problem.

What we don't see enough of is thorough analysis of what this is going to mean across the board. Not to pick on the Journal, but let's take another seemingly unrelated Journal story about a parcel of land in the North Valley. Feudal Prince Marty Chavez has decided the best way to handle the fight between balloon fiesta folks, local activists and developers in regards to 22 acres along Osuna N.E. is to make a Solomonic decision in which almost 17 acres will be left for balloons to land on, with around five acres for "a coffee shop, restaurant or similar development directly along Osuna".

Now as the Journal story points out, pretty much nobody is happy about FP Marty's decision. But I want to look past the decision itself, and even past my own, well-documented, hatred of the Balloon Fiesta. Instead, let's think about it in terms of gasoline at four/five/six bucks a gallon. First, higher gas prices will have a negative impact on the Balloon Fiesta. The story itself relates the following point:

Balloon Fiesta leaders, however, had urged the mayor to purchase the whole property without allowing commercial development. In a letter to the city in April, the group said fewer pilots were applying for the fiesta because of the lack of landing sites.
But fewer people are going to care about "landing sites" when gas is $4.50 a gallon and Bill and Daisy Munsterman from Montevideo, Minnesota have to spend $3,000 to keep filling their hyper gas-guzzling one mile per gallon RV to make the 1,700 mile drive down to ABQ to see the friggin' Balloon Fiesta in the first place. Attendance by restaurant-attending, hotel room-using out-of-towners at the Balloon Fiesta is going to drop. It's even highly likely the number of balloonists will drop. Dropping attendance and number of balloonists mean...well for one thing it means we might not have quite as much need for 17 acres of choice balloon-landing real estate.

Second, as gas prices continue to go up, is it going to make sense to have 17 acres of "balloon landing" space in town while surburban sprawl continues out past Ventana Ranch to God knows where? Maybe it might make more sense to build some houses on that 17 acres instead of 17 acres at the corner of Double Eagle Airport and Los Vocano #1.

And I say that as someone who lives in the South Valley, and dreads the day when the lovely 500 acre alfalfa field adjacent to our back yard is replaced with 700 econo-box houses from Centex. But at least that 500 acres is being used, growing alfalfa. What is this 17 acres going to be doing on the 350 days of the year when balloons aren't landing on it? What kind of land-use thinking is that in an age of $5 a gallon gas?

It's questions like this that dramatically higher gasoline prices raise. I'd like to see more journalistic folks (New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times included) continue the lines of inquiry John Fleck has been exploring and really examine this issue to its logical conclusions. Hell, even illogical conclusions would be better than what we're seeing now, in which far too much time is spent parroting politician-speak on whether we should drill for oil offshore or a gasoline tax holiday.

Let's get serious here. Oil is over $130 a barrel and doesn't look like it going anywhere but higher. Our current gasoline prices don't even reflect the latest price per barrel hikes yet. Instead of just trying to find new ways to feed our addiction, or put off for as long as possible the rising cost of our fossil fuel drug, we need to start planning for and implementing a post-hyrdrocarbon future as quickly as possible. Continued public education (via media, especially) about the long-term impacts is very, very important, regardless of how complex and depressing the conclusions may be. Or, for us more perverse human observer types, how terribly interesting this should all turn out.


Anonymous said...

Good column. The Journal should run it!!!

Natalie said...

Hey. I thought of you last night as I was speaking with the new superintendent about the APS website and he mentioned that he's experienced the two worst websites ever... APS and...
The Journal!
He was complaining about having to do that trial access deal and that having to sit through that stupid advertisement.
Cracked. Me. Up.
And I thought of you...

Maybe there is hope... yet.

jscotkey said...

abqjournal.com v. aps.edu


aps.edu has a number of definite losing points, but I think I'll take abqjournal.com because it's more general and it's a .com. I mean when you're a .com one is really supposed to at least appear to be trying.

Yet for those with niche needs like, I dunno, finding out about openings throughout the District, aps.edu's "careers" section is a such a Pravda circa-1973 mix of lies, old news and incomplete information that it is utterly unusable.

Truly a titanic struggle of suckiness. Btw, didn't the Titanic sink? On its first voyage? Exactly.

P.S. Natalie: Tell Winston Brooks hi for me, and that I'd love to meet him. Okay, maybe "love" is a strong word, but I would like to check the dude out in a less than crowded auditorium forum sort of way. For a second there I forgot we had a new superintendent, but I guess I'm deep in vacation mode.

John Fleck said...

Thanks for the kind words but, more importantly, great idea regarding balloon fiesta and fuel costs. I'll add it to our list of questions worth exploring.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the game here, but the perspective still rings true: Worst Website Ever.