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Editorial: A short-lived, high-octane panic
Brief worry over gas supplies underscores our reliance on fossil fuels, a need for alternatives
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If dinosaurs had never roamed the earth, how in the world would we get around today?

There’s really more to the formation of petroleum than ancient lizard carcasses, but we know we can’t get by without it. This became relevant last week when a leak in a vital fuel pipeline in rural Alabama that runs from the Gulf Coast through Georgia and up the eastern seaboard limited the supply of Jurassic go-go juice for several days in North Georgia.

And some people flat freaked out.

It wasn’t just that the price of gas jumped a quarter or more from its comfortably low perch just above $2 a gallon. That was annoying and costly, but most were willing to shell out a little more if they could find it. But with supplies to some retailers cut back until the flow could be restored, pumps ran dry at some stations, especially for higher-octane fuel. That led some people to top off their tanks or fill storage cans in reserve, which only contributed to supplies being depleted faster.

Motorists reacted similarly when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf in 2005 and interrupted the transport of gas. It also served as a flashback to those old enough to remember long lines at the pumps during the energy crisis of the late 1970s.

Fortunately, the shortages mostly were short-lived. Govs. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Robert Bentley of Alabama suspended rules on truckers’ hours to allow more transit of fuel to plug the gap. A workaround repair to the pipeline was in place by Wednesday, and fuel began flowing again, though stations in some areas are still out of some grades of gas.

But as is often the case in such incidents, we saw people at both their best and worst. The worst came when many stations gouged desperate customers by illegally hiking prices a buck or more when supply didn’t meet demand. The state should investigate any complaints filed against such station owners who sought to cash in on this shared misfortune and apply the appropriate fines.

But our best came through when many used social media to share information on where to find gasoline available and cheaper. Had the shortages lasted longer, that impromptu network could have been a saving grace.

The frantic concern over filling our tanks again points out the crucial role Dino’s remains play in our economic vitality. Like it or not, petroleum flows through the bloodstream of the U.S. economy, and efforts to wean ourselves off of it won’t come easily.

The narrative of how the global economy evolved from agrarian to industrial and then to the information age of the 21st century skips one key element: A reliance on mobility and the fuel that drives the power we need. As proof, try turning on your computer without the electricity that comes out of your wall, which still is largely generated by coal and oil.

The need to get around stirs an economy that won’t function standing still. More goods now are transported over highways after railways proved unable to carry it all. More business models are based on deliveries; years ago, one might find a few providers to bring a pizza or chow mien to the house, while today myriad operators will haul food, flowers and goods of every kind to your front door. Tap a few buttons on your smartphone and tires will be squealing in your driveway in minutes.

Our work life depends on mobility in an age when fewer people live close to the commercial centers where jobs once clustered. Businesses and homes are spread farther apart, leading to longer commutes and the need for dependable transportation and the roads that carry us. Despite a push for more public transit, the workday needs of many go beyond point-to-point travel and require more flexibility.

Kids need to get to school. Police cruisers, fire trucks and ambulances have to respond to emergencies. Utility vehicles must fan out to fix roads, power lines and other infrastructure. Without gasoline for any length of time, all this could grind to a halt, a scary prospect for those whose paycheck is linked to this movable feast.

It points out not only why we need an unblocked source of fuel but also the need to maintain roads, highways and bridges. Our state is again flush with revenue to fund these projects, and we’ve seen crews on Interstate 985 and elsewhere all summer working on overdue repairs and upgrades.

Though brief, last week’s hiccup in gas supplies points out a need to diversify our fuel use over time to keep us moving. Hybrid and fully electric vehicles, though still dependent on electricity sparked by fossil fuels, offer one option. Gainesville has installed a charging station at its Main Street Parking Lot, and Oakwood is considering doing the same, a reflection of consumer trends.

Eventually, we need to get off this drug, for environmental and geopolitical reasons. Its exhausts fill the air with poison that most scientists believe is affecting our climate. And imagine the horrible impact to wildlife of 300,000 gallons of unburned gas spilling into an Alabama creek from the pipe breach, years after an oil rig explosion and leak in the Gulf of Mexico devastated ecosystems there. Petroleum is an ugly substance we rely on out of necessity now, but one we must abandon in the future when the alternatives become more viable.

Someday, when we’ve squeezed the last drop of black gold from the ground, those pumps will indeed run dry for good. Before that happens, we must find better, cleaner and more cost-effective ways to get around.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas.

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